Censorship in Public Schools

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Censorship in Public Schools

-A principal in a California high school bans five books written by Richard Brautigan because he thinks they might contain "obscenities or offensive sexual references" (Berger 59).

-A Vermont high school librarian is forced to resign because she fought the school board's decision to remove Richard Price's The Wanderers, and to "restrict" the use of Stephen King's Carrie and Patrick Mann's Dog Day Afternoon (Jones 33).

-An Indiana school board takes action that leads to the burning of many copies of a textbook that deals with drugs and the sexual behavior of teenagers (Berger 61).

These cases of censorship in public schools are not unusual and there is evidence that such challenges are increasing (Woods 2). These challenges are actually typical of the ones being leveled against school libraries today. These challenges can come from one person or a group concerned with the suitability of the material in question. In almost every case, the effort to ban books is said to be "justified by fear of the harmful effects that the books may have on young children" (Berger 59). The result of these censorship attempts has been two opposing sides: one side believes that "more suitable materials can usually be found from among the wealth of materials available on most subjects (Woods 1), and the other side believes that students' "intellectual freedom" can be upheld only if students are allowed to examine "any available relevant materials in order to gain the insights needed to reach their own conclusions" (Woods 1). In the simplest terms, the debate is between censorship and the freedom to read.

The most important question when discussing censorship deals with its constitutionality; does censorship violate the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech? Censorship advocates actually use the words of the First Amendment to make their point; "the amendment reads, 'Congress shall make no law...", it does not say, "There shall be no law...'" (Berger 69). They believe that, although the federal government is forbidden to censor, it is not unconstitutional for states and local communities to pass censorship laws (Berger 69). Also, since the US Supreme Court does not believe the First Amendment protects all forms of expression (child pornography, etc.), then proponents of censorship believe that censorship laws are constitutional (Berger 69). Anti-censorship has the upper-hand, constitutionally, at least, since "judges, from local courts to the Supreme Court, seem firmly on the anti- censorship side" (Berger 61). The courts have time and again ruled that the Constitution prohibits Congress from censorship of any form.

These two opposing sides have butted heads again and again leaving behind landmark cases for future legal actions. One of the most famous of those cases was Pico vs. Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District No. 26, which was the first school library censorship case to reach the Supreme Court (Jones 35). In March 1976, the Island Trees School Board in New York removed eleven books that they deemed "anti-American, anti-Christian, anti- Semitic, and just plain filthy" (Berger 59) from the high school library shelves. Among these books were Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, A Hero Ain't Nothing but a Sandwich by Alice Childress, and Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver (Jones 37). The board felt that it had "a moral obligation to protect the children in our schools from this moral danger" (Berger 60). Five students then sued the school board on grounds that their decision violated their First Amendment rights. The suit was passed around the courts until June 1982 when the Supreme Court took up the cause and ruled that the school board would have to defend its removal of the books. The Supreme Court decided that since the library is used voluntarily, they can choose books there freely and that, as Justice Brennan stated, "the First Amendment rights of students may be...
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