Book banning and censorship became a hot topic in the 1990's with parents going up in arms about books their children were sent home with as class material, knowing that enough complaints about those books would get them removed from the school's classrooms. How are teachers supposed to see the difference between censorship attempts and a parent's concern about the appropriateness of a particular book; between complaints about an optional book and a required book? If teachers avoid certain books because of the controversy they cause, how does that help students learn to decide what they think about those issues?
The Censorship of Publications Act is "An act to make provision for the prohibition of the sale and distribution of unwholesome literature and for that purpose to provide for the establishment of a censorship of books and periodical publications, and to restrict the publication of reports of certain classes of judicial proceedings and for other purposes incidental to the matters aforesaid." This Act was born under The Censorship of Publications Board on the 13th of February in 1942. The Board and the Appeal Board is made up of ten people altogether; the ‘Minister’ having power over the ‘chairman’ and the ‘regular members,’ who examine and excise every book that comes to them with a complaint from an officer of customs or concerned citizens.
Censorship is defined as "The removal, suppression, or restricted circulation of literary, artistic, or educational materials...of images, ideas, and information...on the grounds that these are morally or otherwise objectionable in light of standards applied by the censor." (The American Association of School Administrators)
According to Deanna Duby, director of education policy for People for the American Way, challenges to school materials are generally placed in the following three levels:
1. A parent who doesn't want their child to read a particular book.
2. A parent, teacher, administrator, or school board member who argues that no one in the class or school should read the book in dispute.
3. Someone who is part of an organized campaign, whether of a local or national group, and who goes in ready for a fight and wants to make a broader political point.
The first type is usually worked out at classroom level when the teacher explains the purpose of a book, or, if it has profane language, how it can still have educational value. Teachers, tending to go against censorship and challenges to books, need to understand the parental right of questioning the appropriateness of a book.
Most censorship experts argue that when a parent challenges the material used in school, the fine line is crossed, considering that a parent's complaints is the most common form of censorship. The clearest case of censorship involves the demand to remove a book from the library. A common complaint is the material not being 'age appropriate,' a compelling argument as any concerned citizen is worried about young children 'being exposed' to inappropriateness found in books, films, or other types of media. This issue is most common in elementary and middle schools. The courts, teachers, and parents recognize that the older the student is, the more that student has 'the right to know.' The one question out of so many that the schools are least prepared to deal with is the discussion of gay and lesbian families in the elementary classroom.
In some areas, conservatives argue that the terms 'gay' and 'lesbian' should be withheld from use before the fourth or fifth grades; but this prevents the teachers from explaining to children about the way their parents choose to live should said child's parents be gay. If teachers aren't able to address whatever questions that the children might have about these issues, they are silencing the children’s' questions, curiosity, and their permission to discuss things in class.
Joan Bertin of the National Coalition Against Censorship notes that censorship is a tool of the status quo and of those in authoritative positions; one of the main purposes is to suppress dissent, hence finding many censorship cases involving issues like the rights of gays and lesbians unsurprising. The teachers who are most sensitive to connecting students' lives with the curriculum are the ones who get in trouble over censorship. While adolescents thrive on controversy, adults shun the idea.
Some of the guidelines developed by groups such as the NCTE, AASA, and ALA help teachers if their curricular materials are being challenged.
1. Don't panic or act impulsively. Some teachers, administrators, and superintendents have a tendency to sidestep controversy by unilaterally pulling a book from the curriculum or school library, only making things worse.
2. Always try and resolve the issue at the lowest level possible. If a parent is complaining, make sure their challenge is listened to and the parent is treated with respect. Many cases, if handled sensitively, need not get to the level of public acrimony and hearing before the school board.
3. For curriculum materials, make sure you can explain the educational value of a book and how it fits into your curriculum.
4. Help parents understand that part of learning to read better is acquiring the habit of reading for pleasure. Many children like scary stories, or goofy stories, even if they aren't Newberry award- winning books.
5. Make sure the school and district have established policies in place to both select materials and handle challenges. Make sure the policies are followed consistently.
6. If necessary, refer the controversy to a broadly based committee of teachers, educators, librarians, and parents.
7. If it appears the issue will not be easily settled, don't wait to get outside help. This includes legal counsel, help with media relations, and support from national organizations involved in censorship cases.
Teachers also need to be aware that what begins as a censorship issue can sometimes end up as a case of alleged 'insubordination.' (ALA Online)
Book burning is another way that parents or other citizens show that they do not want material that could be considered inappropriate in the hands of the younger generations. Thanks to the Deutsche Studenenschaft on May 10th in 1933, book burning spread all over Germany and Austria and became a popular ‘sport;’ the ceremonies had invitations, stating the place and time, as well as scripted rituals, containing the order of expected events within the ceremonies. Thousands of the authors they deemed ‘un-German’ were famous, obscure, native, or foreign. The reaction to this barbarism in the world press was of surprise and shock, while the Germans were proud that they were ‘beginning to purge themselves from the alien and decadent corruptors of the German spirit.’ By the end of 1933, Hitler was in complete control and the Nazis were the only legal political party in Germany, condemning many people from reading books not supporting the German party.
Not long after, places in America took after the Germans and conducted book bonfires, their reasons entirely different from those of the Germans. Parents, whether they wanted to or not, brought books they thought inappropriate from their personal libraries, or books that came from public and school libraries. The history of book burning goes back to 213 B.C. when all Confucian books were burned but one, which was kept in the Chinese State Library. Some of the more recent burnings (November 15, 2001 according to the ALA) consisted of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, a fairly innocent piece of children’s literature about a boy who finds out on his eleventh birthday that he’s a wizard, and is enrolled at Hogwarts, a school of witchcraft and wizardry. Though there is no real danger in reading this book, parents and church leaders of Lewiston protest, saying that it promotes rebellious behavior from children, as well as the practice of witchcraft and the occult.
A September 19, 2002 article states that 607 books were slashed, the majority of those books being volumes about gay and lesbian subjects. A lot of them had been stuffed with Christian religious material, while some of them would have the covers of romance novels stuffed somewhere between the pages. The culprit, John Perkyns, pleaded no contest to one count felony of vandalism with a hate-crime enhancement and will be serving five years probation, undergo counseling, stay away from all public libraries, and pay $9,600 to the library system for the damaging of so many books.
Banned Books Week was formed to celebrate the freedom to choose or express one’s opinion, even if it is unorthodox or unpopular and stresses the importance of availability of unorthodox or unpopular viewpoints to one and all. Celebrating the freedom to read occurs the last week of September every year since Banned Books Week was started in 1982. The Intellectual Freedom Manual (ALA, 6th edition, pg. xiii) states:
“Intellectual freedom can exist only where two essential conditions are met: first, that all individuals have the right to hold any belief on any subject and to convey their ideas in any form they deem appropriate; and second, that society makes an equal commitment to the right of unrestricted access to information and ideas regardless of the communication medium used, the content of the work, and the viewpoints of both the author and receiver of information. Freedom to express oneself through a chosen mode of communication, including the Internet, becomes virtually meaningless if access to that information is not protected. Intellectual freedom implies a circle, and that circle is broken if either freedom of expression or access to ideas is stifled.”