Censorship: Tactics for Defense

By Lowery, Skip | Phi Delta Kappan, March 1998 | Go to article overview

Censorship: Tactics for Defense


Lowery, Skip, Phi Delta Kappan


From the look on the principal's face, Mr. Lowery knew he was in trouble. But what happened in the office that day taught him something about censorship in schools. It taught him tactics, which he now passes on to readers.

In 1964 I was teaching Orwell's 1984 at Key West High School. I thought the book was important for a lot of reasons, but principally because Orwell was warning us about what can happen when a centralized government - Big Brother - controls citizens' thinking by controlling the meaning of language and the access to information. The book was an attack on the most extreme form of censorship.

Alas, the novel also includes one brief incident of lovemaking by the two principal characters. It is an appropriate scene in this dystopia, where having sex with someone is deemed an act of sedition because it means that you love someone more than you love Big Brother. My students understood the context. No one complained to a parent or giggled when the scene came up in class discussion.

But one morning I was called to the principal's office. Sitting across from the principal was a middle-aged man holding a copy of 1984 in one hand and a Bible in the other. From the look on the principal's face, I knew I was in trouble.

The gentleman was a lay preacher. He said he had stopped by the school on his way to meet with other preachers about this teacher (me) who was using obscene material - trash, he called it - with high school students, when schools were not allowed to teach "the word of God." At this point he held up the Bible.

What happened in the office that day taught me something about censorship in schools. It taught me tactics, if you will, that I want to pass on to you.

First, let me defend the preacher. He originally came to the principal's office to protest the use of what he perceived to be objectionable material (his son was in my class). Certainly all of us have that right. Therefore, I include as a defensive tactic for teachers the recommendation that we not attack someone's objections as stupid or ill-founded. There are areas of legitimate concern regarding a school's selection of materials. Open debate about these matters should be welcomed, and possible changes should be made as a result, as long as such changes are sanctioned by the majority of parents, teachers, and school officials.

The problem, of course, is when protest slides past public discussion, when a minority indirectly imposes its will on a school system and succeeds in having "objectionable" materials removed, often without the general public's even being aware of what has happened.

This leads me to my second point. The preacher was planning to organize a campaign against me and the school, a campaign by members of what today we might call the "Christian Right." The key word here is organize. The majority of those who succeed in having books banned are successful because they have a wide network of support - not just local support, but also the support of national coalitions with sophisticated organizational methods. Recently, those methods have included efforts to get like-minded people elected to school boards.

In contrast, people who do not object to books or materials, who either trust the school system's judgment or think students should be exposed to ideas and issues from a wide variety of sources, usually have no organized defense.

I learned this lesson the hard way. I had not expected anyone other than the principal to question what I was doing in the classroom. And he had not only encouraged me to use Orwell's novel but had actually read it. Still, he was no more prepared to deal with the preacher than I was. We were improvising.

The preacher's objection was the sex scene. We asked if he had read the entire book. He hadn't. That's when I first realized that most protests about books or films are aimed at segments taken out of context - rather like seeing Michelangelo's David draped everywhere but the genital area and then complaining that the statue is obscene. …

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