Censorship in the Schools

Article excerpt

ATTEMPTED CENSORSHIP OF school materials and curricula continued to increase last year, with student newspapers, magazines and school plays as frequent targets.

According to a report from People for the American Way, there were 458 challenges in 49 states during the 1994-95 school year, 338 of which were attempts to censor material (50% were successful) and 120 were more broad-based challenges to public education.

"One of the most disturbing findings in this year's report, and perhaps the central finding, is that the success rate for would-be censors hit 50% for the first time in the 13 years we have compiled this report," commented PAW executive vice president and legal director Elliot Mincberg.

Further, PAW estimated that for every incident reported, there are four or five that go unreported.

The report, Attacks on the Freedom to Learn found that sexual content, objectionable language and religion were the most frequent causes for objection, although objections to "promoting" homosexuality showed a 50% increase from the year before.

California led with the most overall challenges, followed by Texas and Pennsylvania. Hawaii and the District of Columbia reported none.

Most of the objections were to books and library materials -- many of which were not required reading -- although curricula, films, plays and student publications also came under fire.

The Family Research Council, which distributed its statement outside the PAW press conference in Washington, disagreed that these actions are problems.

"When a government restricts what its citizens can read, that's censorship. When parents have input on what local officials do in the schools, that's democracy," stated FRC president Gary L. Bauer.

"It stretches the limits of the imagination to believe that 458 phone calls over 365 days spread over 80,000 public schools and 15,000 public libraries is some kind of terrible groundswell of social destruction -- that's not even one call per member of Congress," he noted in a released statement.

Mincberg pointed out, however, that the report does not include as censorship parents who want to have their own children "opt out" from a particular assignment.

"What we mean by censorship is when anyone ... tries to ban or limit access to books or other materials by every student for ideological or religious reasons," he explained.

When it came to attempts to censor student publications, People for the American Way found that many school officials relied on the 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, which allowed a high school principal to censor material in a school-sponsored student-run newspaper.

"Six states -- Arkansas, California, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas and Massachusetts -- have passed their own student freedom of expression bills, giving students broader rights than the Hazelwood decision allowed them," the report noted.

"But some school officials have interpreted Hazelwood as granting them broad, even unchecked, authority," it continued.

"In some cases, student journalists who balk at the censorship of the school-sanctioned newspapers have started their own 'underground' newspapers, only to find those censored, as well."

Although People for the American Way found that many of the challenges were coming from the Religious Right or groups affiliated with it, about 5%, or 16 incidents, were brought by the political Left. They involved charges of racism against African Americans or Native Americans.

Among the attempts to censor student newspapers were:

* Objections to a Troy, ala., article about alcohol consumption and nudity were sustained by the principal and removed from the newspaper. When the principal did not respond to an appeal in a timely fashion, the students and their advisor attempted to go to press but were told by the printer that he was instructed by the principal not to print the newspaper. …