Record stores strong-armed by police not to stock recordings with 'warning labels.' Bookstores busted and their material burned authorities. Such is the precarious state of our First Amendment rights in America 1992. Meanwhile, a particularly dangerous epidemic of censorship is taking place--most often quietly--in school districts throughout the U.S. in the form of censorship of classroom books and curricula.
Censorship attempts in public schools reached their highest rate in 9 years, with over 229 attempts to censor material used in public school courses or available in school libraries during the 1990-91 school year according to a report by People For The American Way. That number is 20% higher than the 1989-90 school year, and 33% higher from the year before that.
Targets included such widely varied educational material as classic works of literature, sex-education programs, "nuclear peace" programs, AIDS prevention and drug-abuse prevention curricula, biology instructions, Lion's Club-sponsored self-esteem development projects, guidance counseling programs, and a range of other materials. Almost 1/3 of the challenges involved library books and optional or supplemental reading assignments--works no child is required to read.
"This year, the single trend that jumps from the pages of our report is the sheer volume of censorship activity in the public schools," said Arthur Kropp, People For The American Way president. "Through litigation and other costly tactics, censors are steadily turning up the heat on schools."
Who's behind the censorship surge? The report finds that in nearly 1 out of 3 instances, attacks can be clearly linked to Religious Right groups. One such organization is the Citizens for Excellence in Education (CEE), whose President, Robert Simonds, recently put their goals very bluntly: "We want to revert to Christian control of the public schools." CEE claims to have elected more than 400 Christians (of their stamp!) to school boards across the country.
In most cases, censors demand that curricular or library material be removed or restricted for all students. While school censorship attempts flared up nationwide--incidents occurred in 44 states in all regions of the country--California led all states with 36 incidents, followed by Oregon, Michigan, Illinois and Texas.
The right-wing groups flexed their muscles during the 1990-91 school year with an all-out attack on the K-6 reading series, Impressions. The literature based series, now in use in 34 states, features lively selections from such authors as A.A. Milne, Martin Luther King, Laura Ingalls Wilder and C.S. Lewis--but Religious Right groups such as Focus On The Family have branded it "violent" and "depressing." This school year witnessed attacks on the series in an astounding 45 school districts.
The stakes went up dramatically when the legal arm of Don Wildmon's American Family Association (AFA) challenged Impressions in court in school districts in Willard, Ohio and Woodland, California. As People For the American Way litigators stepped in to defense of these communities, AFA dropped the Willard suit, while the Woodland challenge remains unresolved. "What is certain is the vulnerability of these financially strapped school districts to right-wing lawsuits, or even threatened lawsuits," comments People For Legal Director Elliot Mincberg, who heads up the legal team representing parents who want to stop the censorship.
But Impressions is only one legal battleground for the Religious Right. In San Juan Capistrano, California, CEE and the Rutherford Institute have lent legal support to a teacher reprimanded for violating school system guidelines by teaching Creationism in biology class. In Nebraska, the Blackstone Society has filed suit against 8 school districts, accusing Quest International drug-abuse programs of "occultism," "eastern mysticism," and "psychotherapeutic techniques."
In fully 1/3 of challenges to school materials, attackers succeeded to some degree--either limiting access to materials or removing them from the school curriculum. Too often, written school policies designed to act as a brake on hasty censorship were not followed by individual administrators yielding to outside pressure.
"This tells us we have to do more to counter the censors," says PFAW President Kropp. In addition to legal intervention, PFAW is stepping up its outreach to educators, offering a special "800" telephone hotline for those grappling with censorship attacks, and a range of new "how-to" materials.
REPORT PROBLEMS: If you read or hear of an incident involving attempted censorship of school books or curricula, contact Mark Sedway at People For The American Way by calling (800) 326-PFAW.