ERIC Identifier: ED315864 Publication Date: 1989-00-00
Author: Aurnague-DeSpain, JeanMarie - Baas, Alan Source:
ERIC Clearinghouse on Educational Management Eugene OR.
Censorship of Curriculum Materials. ERIC Digest Series Number
What schools should teach and what materials they should use are fundamental
questions that cannot be answered easily in a democracy. Some believe censorship
of K-12 curriculum materials threatens academic freedom, diversity of thought,
and other important educational values. For example, Henry Reichman (1988)
argues that censors "produce a sterile conformity and a lack of intellectual and
emotional growth in students." Others see a need for a censorship process in
education and believe "children are being harmed from our failure to protect
them from the tension of premature adulthood" (Edward Wynne 1985).
A comprehensive report published by the National School Boards Association
(Linda Chion-Kenney 1988) indicates that censorship challenges are widespread
(occurring in almost every state) and effective (almost one-third of them
resulted in materials being removed from schools or their use restricted).
Ultimately, Chion-Kenney asserts, "the challenge is not to avoid censorship, but
to meet it head on with adequate policies and procedures that provide an open
forum for deciding what should -- or should not -- take place in public
WHAT CONSTITUTES CENSORSHIP?
The definition of censorship
is itself the subject of disagreement. In a democracy, it is customary for
decisions to be made by majority rule. How can those who hold to minority
viewpoints seek to have their concerns addressed by the schools without being
labeled "censors"? Likewise, how is the professional judgment (and at the
secondary level, academic freedom) of educators to be weighed against the
desires of the community and parents that their children not be exposed to
certain materials or experiences?
Reichman defines censorship as "the removal, suppression, or restricted
circulation of literary, artistic or educational materials . . . on the grounds
that these are morally or otherwise objectionable in the light of standards
applied by the censor." Yet, as Chion-Kenney points out, "virtually any decision
made by school board members concerning what is taught, used, and learned in
school can be viewed as the act of a censor."
Meanwhile, out in the field, censorship issues continue to arise, most
typically regarding sex and drug education; "secular humanism" materials;
teaching evolution without attention to creationism; literature portraying
children in conflict with parents or authorities, women in nontraditional roles,
or "negative thinking" by people in minority or alienated roles; and "invasions
of privacy" -- any assignments (such as journals) in which students are asked to
examine their personal backgrounds.
WHAT IS THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN CENSORSHIP AND
According to one point of view, censorship cannot be clearly
distinguished from the gatekeeping function that is exercised by those who
select materials for use in schools. One of the goals of selection, say
adherents of this position, is that of protecting children from material judged
to be inappropriate. "It is right," argues Wynne, "for us to restrict their
choices among media materials or prohibit self-seeking adults from selling
certain such materials." Others question the wisdom of excluding topics from
guided discussion at school when students are exposed to a barrage of
information about controversial subjects through other sources, such as the
To prevent selection decisions from becoming synonymous with endorsement of
content, they should be guided by sound, clearly stated policy. "Intelligent
selection," according to Reichman, should balance the concerns of a wide variety
of groups and be carried out by trained professionals who "take into account and
work with community and parental concerns" and maintain "a high tolerance for
our national diversity." The selection process favors majority involvement; when
it either disregards or fails to allow for minority rights, censorship issues
make their appearance.
WHAT ARE THE LEGAL GUIDELINES?
The legal trends in
censorship issues, as they can be deduced from Supreme Court cases, are very
broad and tend to support the schools, but they embody a stern warning to
educators to stay in touch with the communities they are supposed to be serving.
The First Amendment applies to both "the students' rights to know and the
teachers' rights to academic freedom," says Edward Jenkinson (1986). But parents
also, he argues, "have the right to protest," particularly regarding materials
they consider detrimental to their children or unsuitable for students in
In the landmark case Island Trees Union Free High School v. Pico (1982), the
Court ruled that the school board had to give a legitimate reason for removing a
number of books from its library. Six years and three court battles later, the
banned books were returned to the shelves after the Court declared that the
"Constitution does not permit the official suppression of ideas" (Barbara Parker
and Stefanie Weiss 1983, Jenkinson 1986).
While the courts appear to be allowing schools broad discretion with respect
to curriculum materials, methods, and programs, Franklyn Haiman (1987) points
out that "there are limits to this discretion. It is not permissible to promote
politically partisan or narrow ideological views, it must not violate
contractual obligations, and it must basically respect due process rights of
both students and teachers." Thus, in the Pico case, Justice Brennan's plurality
opinion indicated that the use of "established, regular, and facially unbiased
procedures for the review of controversial materials" would help to provide a
basis for resolving such conflicts both locally and, when need be, in the
HOW CAN SCHOOL OFFICIALS AVOID CONTROVERSY?
communications and public relations offer the best way to avoid unnecessary
controversy. Districts need sound written policies, procedures, and criteria
that are "developed cooperatively by teachers, administrators and school board
members, with formal approval given by the Board" (Haiman).
The district must specify criteria for making curriculum judgments, identify
personnel to make those decisions, and provide written rationales for including
or excluding potentially controversial materials. These policies should be
reviewed yearly. Broad support should be sought from local, state, and national
organizations that are committed to academic freedom.
In developing community support, Larry Mikulecky (1981) suggests several
o Work to dispel the idea that only one text can be used for a specific skill
o Invite parents to participate in developing school reading programs.
o Give suggested, rather than required, reading lists.
o Develop files of professional reviews for the support of materials.
o Ask for clauses in collective bargaining agreements that protect academic
freedom and require agreed-on selection policies and procedures.
WHEN CONTROVERSY OCCURS, HOW CAN IT BE HANDLED?
to NSBA deputy general counsel Gwendolyn Gregory, a school board might win a
case legally, "but lose it in the court of public opinion" (Chion-Kenney). She
urges officials to "keep a distance" from their personal beliefs, concentrate on
what is "educationally sound," and not get lost in trying to avoid legal
problems. "You can't avoid lawsuits," Gregory says, "but you can avoid losing
them." To do so, school boards need to gather the real facts in each situation:
"Listen to people's complaints, follow up, don't accept as truth the conclusions
of others, understand where they are coming from, and investigate."
Educators should follow clearly defined procedures from their initial
response to the complaint through to its resolution (Haiman, Essex,
o Meet with the complainant and try to resolve the issue informally.
o Failing that, ask for a written complaint specifying in detail (page
citations, quotes, and so forth) the questionable material, the negative effects
that material is believed to have on students, and what replacement materials
o Provide a copy of published district policies for controversial materials
and explain the procedures to be followed.
o Assign a review committee to provide the school board with a final report.
o Inform the complainant of the review process and when committee meetings
o Provide for an appeals process.
o While the complaint is being investigated, the controversial material
should remain available, except possibly to the student whose family has filed
The courts have made it clear that the school board has the ultimate legal
responsibility for the district (Haiman). School officials operate only with
powers delegated to them by the board. Accordingly, school boards must stand
ready to receive appeals in a careful and defined manner. Above all, the NSBA
position (Chion-Kenney) is to think positively and maintain a strong faith in
the democratic process. Handling complaints can help schools gain a balanced
view on controversial issues. "As a check both on unavoidable human error and on
the occasionally arbitrary exercise of authority, such challenges may be viewed
as an essential element in the overall selection process."
Asheim, Lester. "Not Censorship But Selection." WILSON LIBRARY BULLETIN (Fall 1953).
Chion-Kenney, Linda. CENSORSHIP: MANAGING THE CONTROVERSY. Alexandria, VA:
National School Boards Association, 1989. 88 pages. ED number not yet assigned.
Haiman, Franklyn S. "School Censors and the Law." COMMUNICATION EDUCATION 36
(October 1987): 327-38. EJ 364 389.
Jenkinson, Edward B. THE SCHOOLBOOK PROTEST MOVEMENT: 40 QUESTIONS AND
ANSWERS. Bloomington, IN: Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation, 1986. 137
pages. ED 272 975.
Mikulecky, Larry. "The International Reading Association's Role in the
Politics of Censorship." Paper presented at the annual meeting of the
International Reading Association, New Orleans, LA, April 27-May 1, 1981. ED 205
Parker, Barbara, and Stefanie Weiss. "Protecting the Freedom To Learn: A
Citizen's Guide." Washington, DC: People for the American Way, 1983. 122 pages.
ED 240 035.
Reichman, Henry. "Censorship and Selection, Issues and Answers for Schools."
Arlington, VA: American Association of School Administrators; and Chicago:
American Library Association, 1988. 141 pages. ED number not yet assigned.
Wynne, Edward A. "The Case for Censorship to Protect the Young." ISSUES IN
EDUCATION 3,3 (Winter 1985): 171-84. EJ 335 768.
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