Banning Books in Public Schools

Robert Bovaird, Natalie Fisher, and Stephanie Switzky

Dr. Qingjiang Yao

COMM 128

24 July, 2011

Banning Books in Public Schools

According to an article in School Library Journal, there were only 420 cases of written challenges to library books and other materials in 2007.  As these were only formal challenges, submitted in writing, it is estimated that only 1 in 5 cases of challenges are actually reported (Whelan). In a survey of why librarians refused to buy certain controversial titles, SLJ discovered that 70% of them feared the response of parents; 29% of them feared backlash from an administrator, the community, or students; and 23% of them refused due to personal objections (Whelan).  In fact, the survey reported that 49% of librarians have dealt with book challenges in their careers (Whelan).  While there is a relatively small number of formal challenges, librarians cite realistic concerns regarding book challenges.  It would be no surprise for librarians to be erring on the side of caution when it comes to books that are potentially controversial.  However, according to Pat Scales, president of the Association of Library Services to Children, the practice of rejecting books because of anticipated challenges is self censorship, and thereby goes against professional ethics (Whelan).  Whether it is self-regulation (or self-censorship) or authorities actively removing titles from the shelves, it appears to be a no-win scenario for those professionals in the position of choosing materials for young students to read.

The act of censoring, which is the repression of speech, has been employed by the controlling bodies of our societies in countless forms.  Some of the darkest periods of human civilization are synonymous with censorship and repression.  This censorship involved both the written and the spoken word, and in today’s world, it is concerned with television, radio, film, and internet.  For centuries, the Catholic Church had published a list of forbidden books called the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (“List of Prohibited Books”).  From 1557 to 1966, this book was an example of censorship on a large scale (Boston).   Novels that we deem to be classics, such as Madame Bovary and Les Miserable, and authors that are integral figures in today’s literary canon (Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, and Emile Zola) were once taboo according to the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (Boston).  As for the complete history of book banning, one needs only to flip through a history textbook and an example of such censorship can be easily located.  Notorious examples of book burning, a radical form of censorship, include Chinese philosophy books in the 3rd century BC, history books in the Roman empire, the Decameron and Ovid in Renaissance Italy, and myriad types of books in Nazi Germany and the USSR.

The United States of America has even seen its fair share of book-burning.  However, the idea of censoring books from our public schools is an issue that has been around for a long time and is still a tense issue.  In 1976, the Committee on Bias and Censorship in the Elementary School formed to work with Task Force on Racism and Bias in the Teaching of English with the objective of giving schools a sense of direction and leadership in establishing guidelines for selecting books (NCTE). The guidelines created by these groups also led to more censorship.

In 1982, the United States Supreme Court settled a landmark case: Island Trees Union Free School District No. 26 versus Pico.  For decades, public school districts had been engaging in many different forms of regulation with regards to the titles used by teachers and available in libraries.  The Supreme Court decided that the removal of books is permissible only if they were determined to be “educationally unsuitable” (Gottlieb). Judge Joseph Tauro defended the court’s decision by saying, “What is at stake here is the right to read and to be exposed to controversial thoughts and language” (Gottlieb). In its wake, the Pico decision left many effects on public education.  It became a trend for school boards to develop policy statements that included specific procedures that were appropriate to the grade levels of the school buildings.  Further, boards began formulating specific policies to accommodate any possible community objections. Finally, the school boards would establish neutral review committees to examine, discuss, and make recommendations regarding library selections (Gottlieb).

According to the National Council of Teachers of English, “a school system with professional standards for dealing with censorship can welcome the interest and support of every faction in its community” (NCTE).  In this respect, a preemptive approach is all the protection a school district needs to protect itself.  The NCTE asserts that if a district has established definite written book-selection policies, which are on file with administrators, it tended to lessen the likelihood of censorship becoming an issue (NCTE).

School districts have spent enough hours planning to protect themselves from book challenges, but the question remains: Who is it that asks for books to be censored? Challenges actually come from both ends of the political spectrum.  According to the Educational Resources Information Center, there are three main kinds of censors: parents who have heard about or seen material that troubles them, community members or parents who react to books without having read them, and local, state, or national organizations with their own special interest agendas (Gottlieb).  Most people would associate these types of censors with the ultra-conservative right-wing branch of American society.  Liberal parents have also led crusades to have books removed from school shelves. The School Library Journal cites a case in which a progressive parent initiated a challenge against Judy Blume’s Tale of a Fourth Grade Nothing. The troubling scene in question is one involving a dead turtle.  The complaint was that reptiles have feelings and they also feel fear (Whelan).

Whether it is coming from the left- or the right-wing segments of society, people usually challenge particular books with the best intentions in mind.  They seek to protect others, especially children, from difficult ideas and information (“About”). Parents, who challenge materials more often than any other group, tend to be motivated by the desire to protect children from books that are sexually explicit, contain offensive language, or are unsuited to a particular age group—these are the top three reasons to challenge a book, according to the Office of Intellectual Freedom (“About”).  Other common reasons for challenging books are excessive violence, homosexual themes, racism, and religion (Whelan), as well as the ever-increasing presence of drug use in young adult literature (Kelly).

With some book titles, it is easily understood why someone might want to challenge its appropriateness in a school setting, while for others it is a little more difficult to see. Groups and organizations that recommend various titles for certain grade levels even end up sending mixed signals to librarians and teachers. For example, Ellen Wittlinger’s Sandpiper (2005) is a book about a teenage girl who learns about how easily oral sex can get her a boyfriend, but also educates her about the problems arising from her sexual discovery. Booklist recommends the novel for grades 8-12, Publishers Weekly recommends it for children ages 12 and up, and SLJ recommends it for grades nine and up (Whelan). Where exactly does this book belong? For some people, they have no problem with it being on a middle or high school bookshelf. For others, it has no place in schools.

One American classic that is frequently challenged is Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. When introducing this novel to a high school class, most teachers are careful to discuss Twain’s use of the word “nigger.” They discuss the historical context of the novel’s time period, how Twain’s language reveals the plight of the slave in the novel, and his use of the vernacular of the time (Kelly). Why might this book be challenged in public schools (after all, it is the 4th most banned book in schools)? Some parents consider it to be a racist novel (Kelly). With the obvious message of the novel, as well as Twain’s well-established role as a champion of all humanity, not just the white ones, it may seem ridiculous for anyone to label it “racist.”

In Palm Beach County, Florida, in 2007, there arose case of a parent challenging several books on religious reasons (atheism, abortion, and homosexuality) (Robinson). In this well-publicized case, the Palm Beach County school board voted unanimously to keep the books in question.  Board member Monroe Benaim defends his part in the decision: “As a school board member, I represent all children rather if they are heterosexual, homosexual, pregnant or not pregnant.  Our staff provides outlets for all children and means to get it.  Some children who may be embarrassed or shy might look to a book on feelings they are having.”  Fellow board member Bill Graham said, “This is a slippery slope.  If you take one book off the shelf, there’s no end to it” (Robinson). With the case of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, it is often a matter of parents’ interpretations of a classic novel.  In the Palm Beach County case, it is a matter of the school board acting logically and fairly in analyzing the challenge.

Two particular books that are often taught in public schools are Richard Wright’s Native Son and John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.  Wright’s novel has been challenged in schools in eight states since 1978, but has only been banned in one school.  According to the American Library Association, challenges against this novel have been mostly based on parent complaints. The common reasons are the novel’s sexual, profane, and violent imagery and language (“Banned and/or Challenged”). Steinbeck’s novel, a book nearly a third the size of Native Son, has a more colorful history as far as its acceptance in public schools. Having been challenged in 25 different states, it has been banned, temporarily removed, or reinstated after being banned in 14 different schools.  Several different groups have led the charge against this novel, ranging from parent groups to the Ku Klux Klan to various civil rights groups.  On some occasions, students who object to its content have been offered the chance to read alternative titles in lieu of the original text. The most common reasons for this novel being challenged are its profanity, offensive or racist language, and taking God’s name in vain (“Banned and/or Challenged”).

With titles like Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Native Son, and Of Mice and Men, schools across the nation have seen all sorts of book challenges.  In some cases, the titles are removed completely, while in other cases the titles remain.  There are more ways to censor titles from school bookshelves than simply taking them off.  According to the NCTE, the most common ways to censor books are as follows:

  • The subtle censorship of “selection” — one-sided selections by individuals or groups
  • Deliberate exclusion of certain books — controversial topics avoided
  • Alteration of books – deleted or changed passages
  • Required book lists — deliberately or subtly excluding types of literature
  • Suppression of materials as a result of community pressure — community members or special interest groups
  • Direct edict — authorities, without justification, ordering censorship
  • Deliberate omission — only one or two viewpoints in collections
  • Curtailment of funds

These methods, along with self-censorship, are frequently seen in all kinds of schools. Even with these methods, however, there are several groups who are advocates against censorship, including the American Library Association (ALA) and the National Council of Teachers of English (Gottlieb).

After the 1982 Rico Supreme Court case, school districts have been preempting the possibility of large, drawn-out, public battles regarding book titles.  One such school district is Auburn-Washburn Unified School District #437 in Topeka, KS. The USD 437 Board of Education policies document states that all materials adopted for use in the classroom shall be subject to board approval and needs to support the district’s board-approved curriculum. Also, these titles must be chosen for accuracy, artistic quality, format, and authoritativeness; be evaluated before purchase by the instructor; and be appropriate for grade level (Auburn-Washburn).

Should a patron of the district bring forward any challenge, the board policy is that the challenge shall be considered in a particular manner.  First, the complainant must meet with the principal.  If a satisfactory resolution has not been met at that point, the principal will notify a district-level curriculum specialist who will ask the complainant to fill out a review form.  The complainant may also request the superintendent to consider the challenge.  In all cases, however, the challenged material shall not be removed from use during the review period (Auburn-Washburn).  On this review form, the complainant will be asked several questions, including the following:

  • Are you familiar with the district policy for selection of texts?
  • What are you objecting to?
  • What might be the result of using this material?
  • Did you read all this material?
  • If not, how were the parts selected for reading?
  • What is the theme of this material?
  • What would you recommend the school do with this material?
  • What material of equal educational quality would you recommend instead? (Auburn-Washburn).

Many districts have policies in place that are similar to this one.  The NCTE has specific advice for all teachers in the matter of possible challenge of book titles.  They encourage teachers to think through a rationale for all titles that may be read by the class, read to the class, or used in small group work or individual reading.  Further, teachers not only need to be willing to defend their choice to teach a particular title, but also prepared and able to defend their choices.  Prior to any actual challenge arising, teachers need to be sure to check with their own districts’ policies. They should keep files on books in their classrooms and prepare units that present balanced points-of-view regarding sensitive subjections.  Finally, the NCTE recommends that all teachers keep a steady line of communication open with curriculum directors and administrators (NCTE).

Book banning, book censorship, and book challenges will not disappear.  However, when the appropriate communication occurs or when school districts create policies that protect both students and teachers, it is possible that the concerns surrounding these challenged books may actually produce thoughtful and healthy conversation about deep issues within our society.

Works Cited

“About Banned or Challenged Books.” American Library Association. 2011. Web. 20 July, 2011.

Auburn-Washburn USD 437. Board of Education. Policy Manual. Topeka, KS: Kansas Association of School Boards, 2008. Web.

“Banned and/or Challenged Books from the Radcliffe Publishing Course: Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century.” American Library Association. 2011. Web. 20 July, 2011.

Boston, Rob. “Fanning the Flames: The ‘Golden Age’ of American Book Burning.”  Censorship. Ed. Byron L. Stay. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 2010. Opposing Viewpoints. Gale Opposing Viewpoints in Context. Web. 20 July, 2011.

Gottlieb, Stephen S. “The Right to Read: Censorship in the School Library.” Educational Resources Information Center. June 1990. Web. 22 July, 2011.

Kelly, Melissa. “Censorship and Book Banning in America.” 7-12 Educators. 2011. Web. 22 July, 2011.

NCTE. “Guideline on Censorship: Don’t Let It Become an Issue in Your Schools.” National Council of Teachers of English. 2011. Web. 22 July, 2011.

Robinson, B.A. “Book Censorship in Public School Libraries.” Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance. Religious 1 Aug. 2007. Web. 22 July, 2011.

Whelan, Debra Lau. “A Dirty Little Secret: Self Censorship.” School Library Journal, 1 Feb. 2009. Web. 22 July, 2011.

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6 Responses to Banning Books in Public Schools

  1. ashley says:

    I honestly dont understand why people do burn book or banish them. I mean if they dont want to read them they shouldnt, no one is making them. But they shouldnt be alowed to take it away from everyone else just because it makes them uncomfortable or offends them. Books are almostlike written speech. They will always be there, as with speech it will always be around you and it will always have somthing spoken or written that you will not agree with. People just need to accept this and let it go. If a book is not creating a clear and present danger then i dont see a problem with it persay.

    • stephswitzky says:

      I love that you say that no one is making someone else read something…and in most situtations that is true. However, in public education, students are required to read certain literature which makes the idea that it is a choice a little less true. In most situations though, if a student has a problem, then the teacher will find an alternative. Thanks for the comments.

  2. ashley says:

    What I mean as a clear and present danger is all in the name. If it is clearly making a negative permanent impact on enviorment or people around its reach then it should clearly be taken into concideration. However, if a person only wants it gone because there child asked them about somthind that made them uncomfortable or then found what they were reading offensive then i see that as only a cultural difference or disagreement on what is acceptable. I am sure what ever their kid asked or what they found offensive would not be offecsive in other areas or parts of the world and someone else would find the question asked to them a normal so-so question as well.

  3. ashley says:

    As for teachers they will always have to fight the battle against disagreing parents and students unless we have a strick specific law about what is acceptable reading material. However, if we do that it would be goind against the first amendment rights of the people. I understand that somethings are rude, prudent, obnoxious, too sexual, or offensive, but dont we have just as many people like this as there are books like this? If some one says these things about books and calls for a complete distruction of these books, it is relatively the same as asking for the distruction of these types of people as well. Books derive from people as do the words written in them, if we take this into consideration, then if some one has a problem with a book, its almost the same as if they were haveing a problem with the author or editor or anyone else who thought that the book was NOT outof line as they did. It will always be a problem, as the papers above states in its conclusion, but we dont have to treat it as one. we can see it as a minor disagreement, untill it makes a obvious permant negative impact on things we all hold dear; our childeren, family, culture, landscape or anything else important to us.

  4. vegavin says:

    Looking at some of these books, their stories are filled with real-world issues and things that are happening in the world. The question then, is how young is too young to be exposed to the “real world”. The more life issues we hide from the children, the more they suffer because they then will find out these problems through experience. Books are, in theory, stories that free us from our life, our surroundings, our limits, into a new world that has happened, is happening, or maybe is only happening in dreams. Teachers don’t necessarily have to pick books that may be inappropriate because isn’t the whole point of assigned reading in an English class to expand our grammatical and literary knowledge? But on the other hand, if they’re going to be reading any text, shouldn’t it serve a dual-purpose? If we have the power to give the students books that can make a mental impact AND increase their classroom knowledge why wouldn’t we? We almost have an obligation to do so, or we have cut off these children from reality and have limited them to the confines of their individual surroundings. We must inspire them to expand and think bigger than themselves. We must bring to light all the things society continuously tries to hide. Otherwise, we will continuously be fighting an endless fight on the issue of banning books.

    I realize the above sounds like I’m rambling. I am. Rambling…with a point. 🙂

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