Most Americans – 93 percent according to a recent Freedom Forum poll – say they believe in the First Amendment. A recent incident in Hauppauge illustrates something else the poll revealed: Many Americans really don't understand it.
Against the advice of a committee of parents, teachers, and librarians, Hauppauge school superintendent Paul Lochner decided to remove Seventeen, Teen, and YM magazines from the middle school library. Like most school censorship debates, this one began with a parent's complaint, and the cause was then advanced by a local priest who said the magazines contain "information that goes against what we believe is the truth about sex as Catholic Christians."
Since when have the rights of public school students to read perfectly legal materials become subject to one religious view about "the truth about sex"? That's what the separation of church and state (also part of the First Amendment) is supposed to prevent.
The superintendent also claims these magazines are not "age appropriate." But they're read by millions of teens and preteens nationwide, and any kid can buy them. Besides, what is "appropriate" for one 12-year-old may be over the head of another. "'Appropriateness,' while suitable to describe behavior, may not accurately describe literature," according to an article in The English Journal, a magazine for teachers, because the world is "not always appropriate." Even if the complaint came from a parent who simply doesn't like the magazines, there would still be a problem. Why should one parent's preferences control what all kids can read in the library? If everyone got to exclude their personal un-favorites, not much would be left. Is the message sent by the annual "swimsuit" issue of Sports Illustrated better or worse than what's in Seventeen? Does People extol a "decadent" lifestyle? Given the state of current events, perhaps libraries would have to get rid of newspapers also.
Lost in the shuffle is what the First Amendment stands for – that we are each free to decide for ourselves what to read and think. No matter how convinced some may be of the rightness of their own views, they simply are not entitled to impose them on others. We all have the right to try to persuade others of our views, but that doesn't imply a right to blindfold or silence others in the process.
It's tempting to try to protect children from the perceived evils in modern society. For example, the Governor of Virginia warned in 1671:
"I thank God we have not free schools nor printing . . . . For learning has brought disobedience and heresy, and sects into the world; and printing has divulged them and libels against the government. God keep us from both."
Parents who try to keep adolescents from knowledge about sexuality are fighting an uphill battle. Sex is part of life and kids are naturally curious about it. Across time and cultures, differing attitudes have prevailed about the age at which children should learn about sex. Some parents think it is inappropriate at the age of 12 or 14, while others discuss sex freely with much younger children. Parents may strongly disapprove of teen sexual activity and still not censor their kids' reading, on the theory that it won't keep them from finding out about sex, and may make them more secretive.
Teenage magazines provide accurate information about sex that some kids want to know but won't ask. Since children are bombarded with misleading messages about sex, it's ironic that parents would object to factual articles about things like visiting a gynecologist, pregnancy-prevention, and safe sex. Personally, the messages to girls about make-up, dating, and clothes bother me more than the information about sex. Of course, that's my opinion. No one else has to live with it, except my children – who can read what they want, but have to listen to my views about it.
Judy Blume, author of popular books for children and young adults that have been frequent targets of censorship efforts, observes that "children are inexperienced, but they are not innocent . . . Part of our responsibility as parents is to give them the tools [that] will enable them to make wise decisions and become responsible, caring adults." Middle school students are approaching an age when they will make many of their own decisions, and schools can and should help with this process. But removing magazines or books that someone doesn't like sends the wrong message. Instead of teaching how to evaluate material critically – consistent with their own and their family's values – it instructs students to accept unquestioningly the judgment of others; instead of teaching tolerance, it encourages disdain for the views of others; instead of promoting respect for law, it teaches indifference to the rights of others.
Joan E. Bertin is Executive Director of the National Coalition Against Censorship.