1975: “Burning Books in North Dakota”
Bruce Severy was fired after having assigned James Dickey’s Deliverance and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five to his high school English students. When the school’s burning of the books created nationwide publicity, residents of Drake, N.D. were “dumbfounded and vaguely upset by the notoriety.”
1979: “Classified at Birth: The Progressive Case”
The controversy around the Progressive’s intended article on the hydrogen bomb forced us to think about the nature of secrecy, knowledge, and democracy, posing the time-honored questions of whether government secrecy is really just secret government.
1982: “Creationism: Arkansas Law Overturned”
The Arkansas law requiring equal-time for teaching “creation science” in public schools was rejected because it was not about enhancing education but about promoting one specific religious viewpoint in public school classes.
1985: “Indianapolis Porn Law: It’s Unconstitutional”
The court rejected a law supported by religious groups and feminist anti-pornography activists to criminalize pornography if it “objectifies” or “degrades” women. Among the problems: figuring out what would be illegal.
1987: “Another Muzzle for AIDS Education”
Congress attacked a comic book that chronicled the adventures of Ed the Jock and Julio the Pump Boy as “hard-core, pornographic, lustful, [and] ugly.” Despite the naughty doodles being produced with private funds by the Gay Men’s Health Crisis as part of a series of AIDS education materials, some members were steamed that GMHC received $674,679 for AIDS research from the Centers for Disease Control.
1989: “Senate Score: Old Glory 97, First Amendment 0”
The Senate voted 97-0 to make it a crime to display the American flag on the floor, after the Art Institute of Chicago displayed “What is the Proper Way to Display an American Flag?” by a student, Dread Scott Tyler. “I don’t know too much about art, but I know desecration when I see it,” said Senator Bob Dole.
1990: “National Endowment: For Politicking or for the Arts?”
Members of Congress and religiously-affiliated groups orchestrated a major campaign against the NEA over what they called “anti-Christian bigotry.” The action came in the aftermath of controversies over NEA funding for controversial artists, Andres Serrano, whose Piss Christ shows a photo of a crucifix submerged in the artist’s urine, and Robert Mapplethorpe, over his homoerotic photo exhibit, The Perfect Moment. Congress directed the NEA to take account of “general standards of decency” in making future grants.
1993: “Can the Movie Make Them Do It?”
A Midwest educator contacted NCAC about a complaint against a school’s showing of Zeffirelli’s film, Romeo and Juliet. The ostensible problem? Not sex, but “teaching children about suicide.”
1994: “Pow!! Zap!! Censors Continue to Attack Comics 40 Years After the Panic”
The comic strips Doonesbury and For Better or Worse were pulled from newspapers for featuring too much sex, the wrong politics, or gay characters; and in Arizona a student was prohibited from wearing a T-shirt featuring the “satanic” comic villain, the Penguin.
1995: “Federal Funding Sweeps: A Battle Over Expression”
Sen. Jesse Helms tried to cut federal funding for schools with programs that have “the purpose or effect of encouraging or supporting homosexuality as a positive lifestyle.” As it turns out, Congress wasn’t content with eliminating information about same-sex relationships and decided to provide funding only for sex “education” programs that promote both traditional marriage and abstinence until marriage.
1995: “The Continuing Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”
A school superintended in New Haven responded to parents’ complaints about the use of the word “nigger” in Mark Twain’s novel by pulling the book from an eighth-grade reading list. He joined a long list of educators before and since who have censored Twain’s iconic novel. (In 2011, a Montgomery, Alabama based publisher, perhaps seeing an opportunity to boost sales, issued a version of the book in which “slave” is substituted for “nigger” throughout.)
1996: “Library Displays Art It Had Banned”
The Manhasset NY public library rescheduled an exhibit of Robin Dellospirito’s highly stylized artwork, following a federal court case striking down the library’s “no nudes” policy.
1999: “Culture Wars Come to New York (Along With Mosquitos)”
It was the summer of anxiety over mosquito-borne West Nile virus when New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani got enraged over a work of art in an exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum of Art and threatened to evict the Museum. The Mayor called Chris Ofili’s work, The Holy Virgin Mary, “sick” and “offensive to Catholics”; it depicts a black Madonna and incorporates elephant dung, an African fertility symbol.
2001: “The First Amendment in the Shadow of Terrorism”
In the weeks after September 11, civil libertarians and others began to ask not only what harm terrorists may yet inflict, but also what damage will be self-inflicted in response to this threat. The Texas City Sun dismissed a columnist for an article headlined “Bush has failed to lead U.S.,” and the cartoon The Boondocks was pulled from papers around the country for saying that the C.I.A. helped train Afghan rebels like bin Laden.
2002: “New York Regents Fail Test on First Amendment”
The revelation that literary selections on the New York English Language Arts Regents exams had been routinely censored – without permission or acknowledgement – outraged authors, educators, publishers, parents, and many others. Passages by Annie Dillard were stripped of references to race, when that was the point of the story. References to Jews and Poles were deleted from Isaac Bashevis Singer’s works about Jews and Poland. If tests can exclude anything arguably “offensive,” what about the curriculum?
2003: “Big Brother Meets Catch-22”
The Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) requires libraries receiving federal funds (e.g., almost all libraries) to install filters to block sexual content that might be harmful to minors. The Supreme Court upheld the law even though it restricts access to protected speech for adults as well as minors.
2004: “Abstinence-Only: Short on Facts, Long on Fancy”
Students enrolled in federally-funded abstinence-only sex education programs are misinformed about science, deprived of vital health information, and exposed to gender stereotypes and religious dogma. Funding grew exponentially as the Bush administration promoted programs teaching that abstinence until marriage is the expected standard of behavior and the only sure way to avoid pregnancy, sexually-transmitted diseases, and psychological harm.
2005: “NCAC Initiates The Knowledge Project: Censorship & Science”
Calling attention to the erosion of our country’s knowledge base and the rise of anti-intellectualism as a national credo, the project develops analyses and arguments about how the First Amendment applies to government actions that suppress research findings and scientific collaboration. During the Bush years, the project addressed attempts to delete scientific information from official reports on global warming, environmental risks of hydraulic fracking, health risks of escalating lead in the environment, and efficacy of condoms in protecting against AIDS.
2007: “Free Speech 4 Students?”
The Supreme Court’s decision in Morse v. Frederick concluded that student speech – displaying a banner that read “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” – is not protected if it “can reasonably be regarded as encouraging illegal drug use.” In a separate opinion, Justices Alito and Kennedy said the decision “provides no support for any restriction that can plausibly be interpreted as commenting on any political or social issue…”, suggesting that Frederick would have won had his banner read “Legalize Bong Hits 4 Jesus.”
2009: “Reflections on Book Censorship, circa 2009”
Censorship is creeping up the age ladder and affecting students who are or will soon be adults. In the recent past, challenged books have included Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God and Susanna Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted. At a recent NCAC event, Toni Morrison conversed with author Fran Lebowitz about the history of censorship, its motivations, and its consequences. She observed, knowledge is “the route out of any oppression, any limitation. You have to read, you have to know, you have to have access to knowledge.”
2010: “Free Expression at Risk, at Yale and Elsewhere”
Yale University Press decided to strip all images of Mohammed from The Cartoons that Shook the World, by Jytte Klausen, a scholarly review of the events surrounding the 2005 Danish cartoon controversy. Officials said the book might stimulate violence “somewhere in the world.” NCAC criticized the University for abandoning principles of academic freedom in the face of hypothetical threats and warned that acceding to threats of violence is only likely to encourage others to adopt the same tactics.
2011: “Culture Wars Returning: Or Did They Ever Go Away?”
In the fall of 2010, culture wars rhetoric seemed like a thing of the past, and then the firestorm hit. Smithsonian Secretary W.G. Clough removed David Wojnarowicz’s 1987 video, “Fire in My Belly,” from the exhibit Hide/Seek – a sacrificial victim to save the show from further attacks and soften the hearts of Republicans in their next discussion of the Institution’s funding.
2013: “Video Games Back in the Crosshairs”
The simple – and wrong – response to mass violence, regularly offered up by pundits and talking heads, is to blame it on media violence, especially video games. The reaction to the December 2012 nightmarish shootings in Newtown, CT, is no different. Scapegoating video games, which are played by millions of law-abiding people, is not likely to prevent the next tragedy, but it may well deflect attention from efforts to understand the why and how of such violent episodes.