The Role of Censorship in School

By Petress, Ken | Journal of Instructional Psychology, September 2005 | Go to article overview

The Role of Censorship in School

Petress, Ken, Journal of Instructional Psychology

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 are 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. …

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