Law & Courts

Liberal Group Retires Annual Censorship Study Report

By Mark Walsh — September 10, 1997 4 min read

The liberal advocacy group People for the American Way has dropped its annual report that chronicled incidents of alleged censorship in U.S. public schools.

In its place, the organization released a report last week devoted to the influence of conservative religious groups on public education. The new report, “A Right Wing and a Prayer,” includes a chapter on book censorship but also examines religious conservatives’ support for such measures as the teaching of creationism, school vouchers, and parental-rights initiatives.

The headline-grabbing censorship report, “Attacks on the Freedom to Learn,” was published for the last 14 years by the Washington-based group. In recent years, however, it had been criticized as overstating the threat from parents and community members who challenge the use of textbooks, library books, and other educational materials. (“Accuracy of ‘Censorship’ Report Is Questioned,” Sept. 7, 1994.)

Most notably, a former researcher for People for the American Way who worked on the report for several years claimed in a magazine article last fall that its “startling censorship numbers ... are cooked.” Marc Herman said in the on-line magazine Salon that he was pressured by his superiors at the organization to make sure that so-called censorship attempts appeared to be getting worse each year.

For More Information

Copies of “A Right Wing and a Prayer” are available for $12.95 prepaid from People for the American Way, 2000 M St. N.W., Suite 400, Washington, DC 20036.

In reality, Mr. Herman wrote, most such complaints “probably never get beyond a gripe directed to a school librarian.”

Officials of People for the American Way said last week that the former researcher’s article was inaccurate and that, in any event, such criticisms were not the main reason for dropping the report.

“We had been discussing changes before that article,” said Deanna Duby, PFAW’s director of education policy. “The report had really become unwieldy. Over the years, the story became much more complex.”

Focus on Access

While “Attacks on the Freedom to Learn” started out as a study of book challenges, in recent years the report had expanded to include other issues, such as a discussion of attacks by religious conservatives on school reform strategies.

Ms. Duby said the organization has continued an on-line version of the censorship report, which it updates every few weeks with reports about efforts to restrict materials in schools.

The article by the former researcher, which was also published in slightly abridged form in Harper’s magazine in October 1996, raised other issues as well. Many parents do not seek to remove a book from school altogether but only suggest that it may not be appropriate for younger age children, Mr. Herman wrote.

Ms. Duby said PFAW does not mind if parents seek to restrict their own children’s access to a book. “But if they sought to remove material [from access by others], we counted that as an attempt to censor.”

The organization has backed up each assertion in its past reports with case studies, Ms. Duby said. The former researcher was wrong, she added, to suggest that “Attacks on the Freedom to Learn” claimed a growing number of incidents each year.

Taking a Stand

People for the American Way is sometimes described as an organization that is motivated not by what it stands for but by what it stands against--the political agenda of what it calls the Religious Right.

The group was founded in 1980 by the television producer Norman Lear as a counterweight to the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority and other groups that combined religion and conservative politics.

It was a key member of the liberal coalition that successfully opposed the confirmation of Robert H. Bork to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1987.

Carole Shields, the president of the 300,000-member PFAW, said last week that the organization does not exist merely to oppose religious conservatives.

“We stand for the idea that every child counts,” she said in an interview at the group’s Washington headquarters. “Results count. Fairness counts. And the Constitution counts.”

In the new report, she argues that “while most Americans see the schools as places where children should learn how to think critically ..., the Religious Right believes that the public schools should promote the particular religious views of the movement’s leaders and avoid topics and ideas that might threaten those views.”

The 101-page report devotes special attention to the issue of school vouchers, which PFAW argues has become one of the foremost policy goals of religious conservatives. PFAW formed a partnership earlier this year with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to oppose proposals that would give parents vouchers to pay for tuition at private schools.

Groups Respond

Tom Minnery of Focus on the Family, a conservative group founded by the religious broadcaster James Dobson, said that People for the American Way’s reports “are hard to take seriously.”

“They just wear their bias on their sleeves,” said Mr. Minnery, who is the vice president for public policy of the Colorado Springs, Colo.-based group.

“We are for the freedom of parents to express their views to their local school boards, including on the issue of teaching religion as history in schools,” he added. “That causes People for the American Way to go into apoplexy.”

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