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The Role of Censorship in School

October 15, 2005

By Petress, Ken

School authorities face great complexities and inevitable challenges when deciding to make or not to make censorship decisions in schools. Matters of educational content, age level, acceptability by parents and communities, and appropriateness in the school setting are among the decisions having to be made. When school official decisions result in disagreements, the courts eventually are called upon to render final disposition of such matters. This article offers select examples of representative censorship decisions and final dispositions are discussed.

The United States has required its young people to be educated since the early days of the nation. Since children are required to attend school until they reach a certain age or have achieved a stated level of education,1 they become captive audiences. Divergent laws, policies, rules and practices through the years and across the numerous school districts and college/university governing boards have imposed or allowed various forms of censorship involving textbook content, teacher classroom presentation style and content, assigned readings, and extra-curricular school activities. Through the years, public debate and protests over the amount of and type of censorship in the schools have taken place; discussions and disagreements over what forms censorship should be practiced in public education have unfolded; and debates over who ought be charged with supervising such allowed censorship have been held in both formal and informal forums?2 This essay examines many of the issues that exist relevant to deciding whether and when censorship is permissible and/or advisable and who ought be empowered to make such decisions. Censorship is an extremely sensitive, value-laden, and little understood phenomenon that needs better exposure for the public, students, teachers, parents, school boards, and school administrators.

It is argued here that censorship is only valid, ethical, and required when it appears to be the only way to avoid or to mitigate provable physical, social, emotional, or intellectual harmful outcomes for students, teachers, or the school itself. When schools censor ideas, students become increasingly interested in such subjects and typically discover some clandestine means to gain access to these taboo ideas. When such means arc thus acquired by students, there is lost any chance that teachers, librarians, or parents can become personally aware of and involved in contextualizing, prioritizing, or explaining what the student has secured. When teachers, librarians, and parents are involved with what is encountered by children, there is less chance that harm from such material will visit that individual.

Censorship, as discussed here, is defined as the forbidding, blocking, limiting, or obstructing access to information for whatever reason. Censorship has taken on a negative, even demonized, loading in our US culture; however, using the above definition, parental and teacher gate-keeping qualify as typically positive and generally acceptable examples of censorship. Parents and teachers – and many others – are obliged by their legitimate positions to censor specific words and images from student access. This article focuses on these teacher, school administrator, and school board endeavors that forbid, block, limit, or obstruct student access to information.

School censors believe, in most cases, that censorship is the most expedient, safe, and familiar way to keep salacious, frightening, inciting, titillating, overwhelming, or seditious words or images out of reach of students that might likely inhibit, prohibit, obfuscate, sidetrack, or contradict what is intended to be taught in the school. Such beliefs are not always grounded in fact; and some that are factually grounded do not justify censorship as a remedy.

Racial issue understanding and protection against racial slurs are one issue that frequently suggest some level of censorship in order to not offend anyone negatively focused upon and to ward off potential parental lawsuits. School official safeguards against possible racial insensitivity are not always favored by non-school groups. One such example follows.

The Yellow Medicine East School District [Minnesota] pulled the book: Little House on the Prairie on the complaint from a single parent that the book “contains racially offensive material about Native Americans.”3 The MCLU argued to the board that

…educators should use the offensive content in [the book] as an opportunity to discuss the pervasive nature of racism and how things have and have not changed since the book was written… [and] .. .Isn’t a teachable moment in the third grade more valuable than a lifetime of ignorance?4

The board refused to ban the book but did issue a suggestion to the school that another book choice might be wise. Such action was interpreted diversely: pro-ban advocates saw it as vindication of the MCLU’s position minus formal action while the anti-ban proponents viewed the decision as siding with their views.

The fact that this long-running and highly rated TV show that followed the book seemed, in some people’s minds not to mitigate aeeusations of intended racism. School officials faced age level implications as well as content factors here.

The Boulder Valley School District Board [Colorado] supported a local school in barring a third grader’s science project closely resembling renown psychologist Kenneth dark’s 1954 racial experiment using dolls. The young girl, properly used the scientific method and titled her presentation: “Does skin color make a difference?” School authorities declined to allow her project to be displayed in the fair even though it had been approved by her teacher. Authorities claimed that this project would be offensive to some minority students [and parents] and therefore was inappropriate.5 No lawsuit resulted, but a school board review of criteria for school presentations was promised.6

Even though appropriate topic selection for the assignment and the grade level was made and inoffensive and proper experiment preparation and presentation methods were planned, school officials worried about how some audience members might react to this science presentation. A major objection to this concern revolved around the question of how children would react to the concept of asking good questions and seeking in appropriate ways answers being censored due to others’ hurt feelings. Questions of blunting inquiry were raised here.

At times, some individuals or groups seem threatened by specific or general book content or by rumors concerning such content and they attempt to influence others with authority to refuse to secure such books from school libraries or to remove such books themselves from school bookshelves. There have been various means and rationales employed to these ends which the courts have found to violate students’ constitutional rights. An example follows below.

In 1971, an autobiographical book about a Puerto Rican Harlem resident was removed from three junior high school libraries by Community School Board No. 25 of Queens County, New York due to “objections to fourletter words |and] detailed descriptions of sexual activity … and drug addiction.” 7 “In Presidents Council, District 25 v. Community School Board No. 25 ( 197 If the question was raised “whether a school board has the authority to remove a book from a school library”8 Council’s lawyers conceded a Board’s right to select books; however, once selected, the claim was made, they could not be removed due to content objections.9 In 1972, the US Court of Appeals forthe second Circuit ruled that the school board had the right to remove as well as select books.10 One major objection to having courts decided such issues is their distance from the local issue and courts’ inability to keep abreast of the issue described in the following paragraph.

One significant sub issue here lies with schools’ administration, library, and teacher turnover as well as changing students and parents over the years. One group approve a book and then later another group disapproves the same book. Authorities thus have a moving target they are constantly expected to evaluate and please. Censorship is not forever; it is transitory.

Sometimes censorship issues are determined in great part by “experts” and decisions about who qualifies as an expert. Issues of reading level also come to play in many censorship decisions. Following is a case involving both these issues. In 1972, a suit challenging the Strongville Board of Education [Ohio] which had refused to Approve Cat’s Cradle, God Bless You, Rosewater, and Catch- 22 citing these books as being “adult oriented”" and “less suitable for use as [a] curriculum text for grades 10-12 and ordered these books removed from library shelves.12 Five families sued school officials “claiming school officials did not possess absolute authority over their students. Families argued school action constituted censorship and was unconstitutional in that decisions were not vetted by “experts.”13 On August 9, 1974, Judge Robert Krupansky of the US District Court for the Northern District of Ohio ruled in Minacini v. Sirongville City School District ( ) “that the school board did have the authority to select textbooks for the district” (2) that the board made its decisions in a proper way; and (3) that there were no con\stitutional issues at stake in this case. The judge argued that public hearings and the professional standing of those deciding on books were proper and sufficient expertise in decision making. ’4 The US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit amended the lower court’s ruling by stating “Ohio law gave the board authority to approve or purchase textbooks; but the board did not have the authority to remove books from the school library. ’5 This ruling required removed books be placed back on library shelves. This last decision barkens back to the problem of changing school personnel over time and adds to the complexity and confusion that administrators and school librarians have in making selection decisions.

A major philosophical matter arises here as to who ought be making educational content issues: school teachers and librarians, school administrators, school boards, parents, or some combination. Only rarely do courts refuse to make such decisions when parties object to decisions, so these decisions are made by the most distant to the school, judges. Inadvertently, children learn in such cases, that adult decisions are not final until a judge affirms them.

Often it is school, administrator, or teacher censorship rights and decisions that are argued in court; but sometimes, student individual censorship rights get litigated. In Tinker v. Des Moines School District (1969), the US Supreme Court ruled that “Students have a First Amendment right to express their own ideas, at least if they do so in a way that does not fundamentally interfere with their school’s functions.”16 The Tinker case revolved around two fifteen year old boys and one thirteen year old girl wearing black armbands to school in protest of the Vietnam war and in support of Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s promise to extend a truce in the war.17 When peers at school joined in their protest, school administrators “moved to stop the protest and isolate and punish the students who wore the armbands.”lx Justice Portas’ stated in his majority opinion:

School officials banned and sought to punish petitioners for a silent, passive expression of opinion, unaccompanied by any disorder or disturbances on the part of petitioners. There is here no evidence whatever of petitioner’s interference, actual ornascent, with the school’s work or of collision with the rights of other students to be secure and to be left alone19

Justice Portas’ opinion implicitly put forth reasons when school officials might be allowed to ban protests and or to punish students for disrupting school activity or lessening other students’ security or safety. Not all Supreme Court opinions are so formed. Portas’ opinion went on to state:

In order for the State in the person of school officials to justify prohibition of a particular expression of opinion, it must be able to show that its action was caused by something more than a mere desire to avoid the discomfort and unpleasantness that always accompany an unpopular viewpoint.20 (pp. 25-26).

Censorship, here, came down to a question of degree rather than kind. School officials must be able to prove serious harm will result, not mere embarrassment or inconvenience before censorship will be sustained in the courts.

Taste and appropriateness, sometimes judged in terms of obscenity are the benchmark employed to determine if censorship is warranted. In Bethel High School in Pierce County, Washington, a student “gave a nominating speech for a fellow student running for a student government position.”21 The theme of the speech was replete with sexual metaphor and double entendres ; this was more suggestive than school authorities could allow. The student was suspended from school; a ruling that spawned Bethel School District v. Fraser (1986). The lower court and a federal appeals court upheld the student’s right to free political discourse; the US Supreme Court accepted the case on appeal and ruled against the student. Chief Justice Warren Burger, writing for the majority stated:

The undoubted freedom to advocate unpopular and controversial views in schools and classrooms must be balanced againstthesociety’scountervailinginterest in teaching students the boundaries of socially appropriate behavior. Even the most heated political discourse in a democratic society requires consideration for the persona] sensibilities of the other participants and audiences …. Surely, it is a highly appropriate function of public school education to prohibit the use of vulgar and offensive terms in public discourse.22

This ruling allows for better classroom management and places obligations on school authorities to assure that alternative means of protecting other students exist before censoring speech.

For school censorship to be valid, some inevitable, unavoidable, and egregious damage to students, teachers, or school property (physical, social, or emotional) must be clearly shown to exist. Censorship to avoid discomfort, embarrassment, extra teacher work, or parental objection is grossly insufficient. If students make ugly, discomforting, silly, mean spirited, erroneous, inaccurate, illogical, or in other ways flawed speeches, writings, or depictions, these need not be nor should be censored but rather used in a compassionate, wise, and purposeful way the subject of a lesson in effective message-making. Discussions of flawed message content, intent, motive, and likely or actual consequences are what make excellent classroom units.

Question of censorship have been shown to be varied and subject to objection from diverse sources. Obviously, it would be best for those making censorship or non-censorship decisions to be wise, prudent, careful, and sensitive to others’ views and wishes. Unfortunately, in many instances, objecting parties who lose in their quest to secure decisions they deem correct often resort to judges’ decisions. School officials thus frequently render defensive decisions or opt out of activities or choices in order to avoid the costs and inconvenience of endless hearings, appeals, and courtroom battles. Often useful educational experiences are sacrificed to avoid these battles and children lose out. The loss of confidence in teachers making classroom decisions has grown to large quarter and school administrators and school boards have reacted accordingly.


1 National Center for Educational Statistics. (2001). State Compulsory School Attendance Laws. Washington, DC: Department of Education. Students are required in the various states to attend school until ages 16-18 or to have completed grade 10 in other states.

2 This essay limits its discussion to censorship of oral and written forms and deals only with matters relevant to occurrences in grades K-12. It is acknowledged that many of the issues discussed in this essay occur at the higher education level; however, these are beyond the scope of this article.

3 Minnesota ACU Fights School Censorship Of “Little House on the Prairie.” ( 1998, December 11). Press release http:// archive.aclu.org/news/ n121198c. found on December 20, found on 2003 at p. 1.

4 Minnesota ACU Fights School Censorship Of “Little House on the Prairie,” p. 1.

5 ACLU of Colorado Challenges School Censorship of 8-year-old’s Science Project on Racism. (2001, February 28. Press release http:// archive.aclu.org/tiews/2001/n022801c.htmlfound on December 20, 2003 at p. 1.

6 ACLU of Colorado Challenges, p. 3.

7 Rogers. Donald J. (1988). Banned! Book Censorship in the Schools. New York: Julian Messner, p. 11.

8 Rogers, p. 12.

9 Rogers, pp. 12-13.

10 Rogers, p. 13.

11 Rogers, p. 31.

12 Rogers, p. 32.

13 Rogers, p. 32.

14 Rogers, p. 32.

15 Rogers, p. 34.

16 Raskin, Jamin B. (2000). We Students: Supreme Court cases for and About Students. Washington, DC Congressional Quarterly Press. p. 23.

17 Raskin, p. 23.

18 Raskin. p. 24.

19 Raskin, p. 26.

20 Raskin, pp. 25-26.

21 Raskin. p. 42.

22 Raskin, p. 46.

Dr. Ken Petress, Faculty, University of Maine.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Dr. Petress, University of Maine@Presque Isle, Presque Isle, Maine 04769- 2888.

Copyright Journal of Instructional Psychology Sep 2005