Commentary

Censors Play The Role of 'Guardians of Morality'

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On the night of Nov. 7, 1975, two members of the Board of Education of the Island Trees Union Free School District in New York State slipped out of a school sports festival and talked the night janitor into admitting them to the high-school library. Armed with a list of "objectionable books" that they had received at a conservative political conference two months earlier, they searched the card catalog for volumes they would later label "mentally dangerous." They found nine, many of which deal with the experiences of Jews, blacks, or Hispanics.

By March 1976, the school board had ordered 11 books removed from the library shelves and had banned them from use in the school's curriculum. The titles included Bernard Malamud's The Fixer, Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, Richard Wright's Black Boy, Eldridge Cleaver's Soul on Ice, and Best Short Stories by Negro Writers, edited by Langston Hughes. As predicted by the Island Trees superintendent of schools, over whose objections the board acted, the usually placid, middle class, and predominantly white suburb of New York City was thrown into turmoil.

In January 1977, Steven Pico and four other students filed suit challenging the removal of the books. Four years of legal skirmishing followed in which the school board asserted a limitless power to indoctrinate students with community values while the student plaintiffs claimed a First Amendment right to be free of "the pall of orthodoxy." The book banners of Island Trees do not think of themselves as censors, but as protectors of traditional morality in a hostile world. Frank Martin, the disarming police detective who serves as school board president, states the bottom line as "whether parents have the right to exercise power over what is taught in public schools they pay for." The plaintiffs, whose parents also wish to exercise power over what is taught in school, believe that a legitimate desire for influencing education has gotten out of control, turning into an unconstitutional exercise in intolerance and miseducation.

In March 1981, the United States Circuit Court of Appeals capped the legal maneuvering by ordering the case to trial. The ruling has virtually assured a public examination of what is likely to become the most dramatic and legally significant example of school censorship on record.

The Pico case is only part of a pattern of intense local battles erupting around the country as opposing forces arm themselves for what could become a destructive war over books in America's schools and school libraries. The insurgents, whose ideological supply lines extend deep into the right wing and its quasi-religious satellites, are well organized; and the advocates of civil liberty in the nation's schools are reading reports from the front with alarm. "The community of the book," as Random House vice president Anthony Shulte calls it, is beginning to prepare for a long struggle whose outcome is by no means clear.

Incoming battle reports include [the results of] a nationwide survey [released July 31] by its sponsors, the Association of American Publishers (AAP), the American Library Association (ALA), and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. The survey indicates that the nation is in the midst of a surge of book censorship which seems designed to cut off independent thought at its educational roots. Nearly 2,000 responses from 7,500 public school administrators and librarians point to the involvement of more than 20 percent of the nation's school districts and 30 percent of its school libraries in challenges to literary works and textbooks. (See Education Week, Sept. 7, 1981.)

Unfortunately for the nation's authors, their publishers, and readers, the AAP report understates the magnitude of the movement to ban books. Ira Glasser, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), calls the proliferating challenges to books "an epidemic of future shock" among individuals who "have little more in common than insecurity and fear of a world they can no longer understand." Judith Krug, director of the ALA's Intellectual Freedom Committee, is alarmed that the number of reported incidents of attempted book censorship in school and public libraries ballooned immediately after the Nov. 4 election of Ronald Reagan, and has continued at a record rate along with the rising fortunes of the new right.

Casualties are mounting. Attacks have already succeeded against works by Brautigan, Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg, Heller, Huxley, Kesey, Orwell, Plath, Salinger, Vonnegut, and scores of lesser authors. In Indiana, North Dakota, and Nebraska, books are burned because they challenge biblical conceptions of the world, while teachers are hounded out of the classroom or fired. Solzhenitsyn is banned in New Lisbon, Me., as well as in Moscow; Malamud's The Fixer is viewed as "anti-Semitic" in Island Trees, and is trashed along with Langston Hughes who is alleged by white school board members to be "anti-Negro." In Springfield, Mo., Maurice Sendak's 4-year-old character, Mickey, of In the Night Kitchen, must wear Magic Marker shorts lest kindergartners be corrupted by his cartoon nudity. The high-school children of one district of New York City may not read about life in the barrios of a neighboring district. The legislatures of 15 states are asked to require that Genesis be given equal time with evolution in science classes. Whole dictionaries are banned because they contain multiple definitions for "bed," "knock," and "shack."

Book banning in Island Trees shares with many other such incidents an origin outside the local community and an idea of educational evaluation that goes no further than lists of out-of-context quotations and underlined vulgarities. The Island Trees board members had attended a state-wide conference sponsored by Parents of New York United where they heard talks by representatives of the conservative think tank Heritage Foundation and received lists of books found offensive by various groups around the United States with little resemblance to Island Trees. The level of thinking of the board members who banned Slaughterhouse Five as "anti-Christian" is reflected in the following portion of a deposition taken by the plaintiffs in Pico of a board member:

Q: What did you know about A Reader for Writers?

A: I didn't know anything about it.

Q: Why did you join in ordering its removal?

A: To find out what was in it.

Q: What made you think there was something wrong with it?

A: It was on the list.

An evaluation of the books by a board-appointed committee was instituted only after the books had been banned. The board ignored most of its committee's recommendations and continued the ban against all but one book.

The central legal question in Pico is whether there can be any such thing as censorship in a public school--whether there are any actions that a school board could take in an effort to inculcate community values in school children which would violate the First Amendment. Board President Frank Martin states plainly that "parents feel schools are an extension of the home and feel no book should be in school that they would not allow in the home." The problem, of course, is "whose home is the public school?" Martin, who recently ran unopposed for the board, sees no such problem: "It's quite simple. I'm the elected representative of the people. I'm directed by the mandate of the voters." Alan Levine, chief counsel for the students in Pico, is willing to discuss some of the evidence he plans to use in the effort to demonstrate that the rights of individual families cannot be made to rest upon the whim of the majority, even in the schools.

In justifying its actions, the school board has relied heavily on the alleged vulgarity of language in the banned books, though no claim of obscenity has ever been made. Levine plans to demonstrate that the vulgarity claim is a mere pretext, that "cloaked in the censorship of words was implicit a view of America" that the board did not want contradicted by literature available in the library. Levine is confident it will not be hard to show that the claim that Malamud's The Fixer is "anti-Semitic is "pure double-think."

The plaintiffs will attempt to show also that the board's procedures in banning the books were as irrational as their judgments about the books' themes. From the board's rubber-stamp reliance on lists supplied by state and national political organizations to its "first the sentence, later the trial" process of evaluating the books, its abandonment of sound educational reasoning and elementary fairness to all parties is the common theme.

Another effect of the reign of hysteria brought on by the censors was the creation of a climate of fear in schools and community. Levine plans to show that, to this day, the irrationality and rough-shod emotionalism of the book banning have left teachers, students, and members of the community intimidated and unable to deliver education that in Levine's words "is about opening minds, not closing them."

The Pico case is not the only situation in which resistance to censorship is becoming more articulate and more public. As publishers, librarians, teachers, and the citizen trustees of the education system become aware of the scope of the problem, the community of the book and the constituents of the First Amendment are beginning to organize.

Seymour Lawrence is co-publisher with Dell of several of Richard Brautigan's works that have been banned in a school system north of San Francisco. He became the first publisher to take legal action on behalf of an author and the right of young adults to read when he joined as plaintiff in a suit seeking reinstatement of the books.

In late January, the AAP joined with the ACLU and the ALA in sponsoring a two-day colloquium in which publishers and lawyers discussed legal and political strategy and the marshaling of forces for the coming book wars. Central to these discussions was a search for legal theories that are capable of harmonizing the existence of majority control of schooling with the First Amendment rights of parents and students who dissent from the values of their neighbors. In any other setting, the right of free expression would be held to prohibit the government or political majority from controlling the content of communication. In schools, however, the accepted practice is local government control of the indoctrination of children. The problem is how to distinguish appropriate indoctrination from instances of censorship that undercut freedom of thought, hobble community tolerance, and turn schools into ideological battlegrounds.

Publishers, civil libertarians, and school organizations are looking more carefully at how excessive pressure can destroy the delicate balance of interests that makes majority control of schools tolerable to the minority. Many are becoming more convinced that, as Dorothy Massie of the Teacher's Rights Division of NEA puts it, "the connection between censorship in schools and politics in Washington is not so tenuous as some might imagine." After a careful review of censorship, professor of education Charles Park at the University of Wisconsin, Whitewater, concluded that "the evidence reflects with startling clarity that right-wing interests have found the public schools a convenient target for unifying ultra-conservative ideology and traditional morality for political gain."

The destabilization of schools is a common effect of struggles in which, as one school superintendent put it, "local control is confused with vocal control." In example after example, a small number of people cloaked in the garb of "pro-family" ideology become intellectual terrorists laying siege to school boards and administrators and cutting them off from the fragile consensus of tolerance on which they depend. By locating, stimulating, and reinforcing local censors, right-wing organizations have gained voting and financial support for a galaxy of conservative causes and have begun moving the public's conception of the nation's problems further to the right.

The involvement of national right-wing groups in censorship issues appears repeatedly. Some, such as Education Research Analysts (run by Mel and Norma Gabler), provide book "reviews" that, by quotation and page reference, make it unnecessary for local citizens to read a book in order to condemn it. The AAP survey discovered that more than half the state-level school officials responding noted the involvement of the Gablers. Others, such as the electronic preachers of Moral Majority, National Christian Action Coalition, and anti-feminist Phyllis Schlafly, make use of computerized mailings, newsletters, television broadcasts, and state conferences to direct the anger of frustrated parents against unresponsive schools and uncomprehended literature:

  • In a Nov. 1980 "Dear Friend" letter, Jerry Falwell of Moral Majority urges parents to fight books that contain information about sexuality because "the liberals and humanists are slowly 'sneaking in' perverted and antimoral sex educational material among public school systems."
  • In the Dec. 1980 issue of Eagle Forum, Phyllis Schlafly anticipates the creation of her national "Anti-textbook Textbook Censorship Committee" in accusing feminists of "conducting gestapo-like censorship of textbooks to purge them of words, pictures, and concepts which encourage the traditional family,hood, and ladylike behavior."
  • Education Research Analysts prepares its own reviews of school texts for national distribution. In one list of objections to a reading series, the reviewer writes "Communism not treated realistically (too favorable).... UNICEF is a known Communist front." A review of Soul on Ice, written by a parent and circulated by the Gablers, states "Written on theme of overthrowing the U.S. government...believes in no God and believes all religions are phony...tells of his delights in breaking the white man's law."

With the moralistic juggernaut underway, would-be defenders of literature fear the consequences of opposing censorship. One school board member, Rayma Page of Lee County, Fla., reports facing her stiffest election campaign since 1968 after insisting that established procedures be used to decide whether Soul on Ice, Catch-22, and Catcher in the Rye should be banned from her 31,000-pupil district. While denying the existence of any Moral Majority "hit list" of school-board members, Dr. Rayburn Blair, Florida state chairman of Moral Majority, does acknowledge plans for an "index that would reveal the way board members voted" on book-selection issues. There is nothing illegal about the provision of such information. But Page, the incoming president of the National School Boards Association, sees these lists as implements of intolerance.

Many parents struggling over the content of school libraries and curricula are expressing a sincere and understandable concern for the atmosphere in which their children are raised. According to Dr. Onalee McGraw, consultant to the Heritage Foundation, these parents tend to be ''ordinary, non-upper class, nonprofessional types," who for a long time "have not been public or mad, and who finally had to take a stand because something was just not right in public schools."

The collapse of values perceived by parents in schools and culture aggravates the already thorny question of how to select and maintain library collections in public schools. "In days when we had consensus on core values," says McGraw, a community advisory board was satisfactory for libraries, "but today we've lost that consensus and any mechanism of citizen committees becomes a matter of manipulation." The loss of consensus complicates the central problem these parents see in professional librarians, professional educators, and the culture in general: the inability to make moral judgments. McGraw is sympathetic with parents troubled by "the unwillingness to make moral distinctions between levels of readership and to face up to difficult moral questions.''

The explanations for the attractiveness of censorship to ordinarily apolitical people are not hard to understand for liberal civil libertarians either. Ira Glasser cites with sympathy the fact that "many groups feel incapable of maintaining their values and insulating them from an alien and dominant culture." Now, Glasser observes, these feelings of impotence and alienation are being translated into strident and sophisticated campaigns of intolerance aimed at using government schools to "prevent teenagers from being exposed to ideas that challenge their thinking." He notes, "The sociological crisis is probably a product of transition in American life. It is essential that the First Amendment not become a casualty of a frantic attempt to deal with the insecurities of this transition."

Whether the First Amendment can provide any leverage in dealing with the pressure for orthodoxy in the schools is the question posed by the upcoming Pico trial. As it organizes its forces and plans strategies, the community of the book will be watching Pico very carefully; and it will be aware, thanks to the AAP, that while Pico is the next, it is not the last major battle in the book wars.

Vol. 01, Issue 04, Page 19-20

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