Issue 79, Fall 2000

Like Our Buttons Say: Censorship Protects Ignorance, Not Innocence

Principled support for free expression requires us sometimes to defend speech that we personally find wrong-headed, offensive, and even abhorrent. But not always. A case in point: censorship of comprehensive sexuality education.

To this parent of two teenagers, this old-fashioned type of censorship demonstrates the evils of suppressing speech and ideas—it causes real harm by withholding knowledge that everyone needs to make informed and responsible decisions and to live safe, fulfilling lives. A provision in the 1996 welfare law provides funding to teach students that “a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexual activity.”

Over a five year period, approximately $500 million in federal and state funds will be allocated to “abstinence-unless-married” education. It’s no surprise that more than half of the schools in a recent poll reported that sex education doesn’t cover condom use, abortion, or sexual orientation. (See Bill Smith’s article in CN 78.) Under an “abstinence-only” approach, students are deprived of medically-accurate information. Students in such programs are taught about contraception only in terms of its failures, and learn about same-sex relationships only in terms of the risk of HIV/AIDS.

Those who ask questions don’t get answers—or worse, they get half-truths (e.g., contraception doesn’t really work). Teachers who respond truthfully to students’ inquiries have been threatened with discipline, and many are understandably reluctant to talk about sexuality at all. Like proposals to require “creation science” to be taught with or instead of evolution, “abstinence-only” represents an effort, largely religiously-based, to limit the learning of all to reflect the values and viewpoints of a few.

A recent study reveals that parents overwhelmingly support comprehensive sex education in school, even if they promote abstinence at home. Many young people evidence a shocking lack of knowledge of human sexuality. One teenage boy asked a teacher where his cervix was, and a girl asked if oral sex could cause pregnancy.

Sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS, are rising among the young in the US, and unwanted pregnancies occur more often here than in other industrialized countries where comprehensive sex education is more readily available.

Comprehensive sex education that includes, but isn’t limited to abstinence, doesn’t encourage sexual activity, but provides the information necessary for safe and responsible decision-making. Sex educators confirm as a matter of fact what First Amendment advocates believe as a matter of principle: suppressing information is a dangerous business. Free expression advocates can’t afford to ignore this form of censorship any more than they can afford to remain silent when Blubber, Huck Finn, or The Color Purple is removed from the curriculum. Next they’ll be razoring the pictures out of biology texts. Don’t believe it? Keep reading.