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Accuracy of 'Censorship' Report Is Questioned

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A conservative group has challenged the accuracy of a widely quoted report that measures incidents of censorship in U.S. schools.

Members of Focus on the Family, a national advocacy group based in Colorado Springs, argue that most of the materials listed as "challenged" in People for the American Way's annual "Attacks on the Freedom to Learn" are never removed from classrooms.

The report by the liberal constitutional-rights group exaggerates censorship incidents largely by defining the term too broadly, said Tom Minnery, Focus on the Family's vice president for public policy.

And the group's use of the words "censor" and "censorship" casts an unjustifiably pejorative light on parents and educators who question the appropriateness of school materials and curricula, Mr. Minnery contended.

"Nobody wants to be called a censor," he said.

Mr. Minnery spoke at a Washington news conference the week before the Aug. 31 release of the latest edition of the report.

Deanna Duby, People for the American Way's director of education policy, conceded that the majority of the challenges in the report do not conform to the "colloquial" definition of censorship because they do not describe government efforts to suppress materials prior to publication.

But, she said, such incidents are important nonetheless. "We consider it a serious problem when people are trying to remove books at all," she said.

Parents' Rights

While the semantic debate in part reflects philosophical and political differences between the two groups, it also raises questions about the rights of parents to question textbooks and curricula.

"Schools do go off on some tangents sometimes, and parents do have a perfect right to know what kinds of materials are being used," said William Poppen, a professor of counselor education and educational psychology at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.

Mr. Poppen, who has studied school censorship, agreed that such challenges seldom succeed.

But they often lead schools to set guidelines for grievances, he pointed out. "I think the challenges do serve the purpose of strengthening school services," he said.

Attacks on Values

Ms. Duby said her organization documents in its report efforts of one group to impose its values on all students. That, she said, is why the most recent edition of the report lists examples of opposition to outcomes-based education in several states and cites a proposal to permit nonsectarian prayer in the District of Columbia schools.

Though not what is commonly called censorship, such efforts are part of a national campaign by the "religious right" to undermine academic freedom and impose religious beliefs, she maintained. "'These are broad-based pressures and ideological attacks on the public schools."

Mr. Minnery countered that branding parents as censors merely because they oppose particular reforms stifles political debate.

"Parents are taxpayers. They're voters. They're people who have trusted their children to the schools." he said. "Do they not have a right to question? I think so."

Focus on the Family used the 1992-93 P.A.W. report to cite what it considered inflated claims of censorship. The group highlighted the example of Michael Wohlgenant, a professor of agricultural economics at North Carolina State University at Raleigh, who complained after a story about cannibalism was read to his daughter's elementary school class.

Mr. Wohlgenant, who said he believed the story was inappropriate for young children, claimed he followed the school district's procedures for registering complaints.

He nonetheless earned a place in the 1992-93 report.

Ms. Duby said People for the American Way does not question parents' rights to ask that their children be excused from reading assignments, but would oppose efforts by parents to make such decisions for other children.

Challenged, Not Removed

People for the American Way accompanied its latest report with a statement that "school censorship attempts [are at] an all-time high."

Mr. Minnery, who had not yet seen the 1993-94 document, said the report's methodology makes such claims questionable.

He noted that in the 1992-93 edition, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark tops the list of "most frequently challenged books," with seven challenges. In none of those cases was it removed from a school.

Of Mice and Men, was listed as challenged four times, but was never removed as a result.

The 1993-94 "Attacks on the Freedom to Learn" reports a total of 462 challenges to academic freedom, of which 375 were efforts to remove books from classrooms or school libraries.

Ms. Duby argued that attempts to remove materials from schools, even if unsuccessful, often result in restrictions on access to books, or lead educators to "self censor" when choosing materials.

The group compiles its report primarily from information provided by teachers, librarians, school officials, and parents who either responded to a mailed questionnaire or made individual contacts with P.A.W. researchers.

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