Issue 80, Winter 2000-2001
NCAC and other free speech advocates have jointly launched a public education campaign to inform legislators, educators, policy-makers and others about the threat to First Amendment principles from publicly-funded “abstinence-only” sex education. Participating organizations ProChoice Resource Center and SIECUS, and others, have collaborated in drafting the following Joint Statement, which other free speech advocates are invited to join.
As individuals and organizations committed to the First Amendment and freedom of thought, inquiry, and speech, we oppose censorship as an affront to a core constitutional principle: that government may not control what individuals read, see, hear, think, and say. This principle is particularly critical in the educational setting, since the classroom is, in the words of the Supreme Court, “peculiarly the ‘marketplace of ideas.'”
We therefore are deeply concerned about publicly-funded sexuality education programs that restrict students’ access to information and limit learning to one “approved” message about human sexuality. While the stated goals of the program, reducing non-marital sexual activity and teen pregnancy, may appeal to some, such goals can be better achieved through educational programs that do not resort to government censorship, but respect freedom of speech and access to information.
The “abstinence education” provision in federal law is expected to come up for re-authorization in 2001. It is therefore particularly important that legislators, educators, policy-makers, parents, students and others understand the threat it poses to important First Amendment principles:
Abstinence-Only Education Is Censorship.
Federal law specifies that the “exclusive purpose” of abstinence-only programs must be to teach “that a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexual activity” and “that sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects.”
Students in abstinence-only programs receive only information consistent with the abstinence-until-marriage message. Instead of a comprehensive review of the facts about contraception, safer sex practices, and sexuality, they often receive false and exaggerated information about contraceptive failure and are told that contraceptives undermine romance and spontaneity. They typically learn about homosexuality only in the context of HIV/AIDS. Abortion is presented as morally wrong and physically and emotionally dangerous. In some programs, fetuses are referred to as “babies.”
The result of this focus on abstinence-until-marriage has been widespread censorship of sexual information. Material on contraception, sexually transmitted disease, and sexual orientation has been razored out of textbooks. Articles about sexuality have been censored in the student press. Teachers have been warned against talking about certain topics, and cannot answer students’ questions fully or candidly. Some have been disciplined or threatened with lawsuits for speaking frankly about sexual matters. Many teachers understandably avoid discussing sexuality at all.
Abstinence-Only Education Affronts the Principle of Church-State Separation.
Like efforts to discourage the teaching of evolution, abstinence-only education is promoted by religious groups and individuals in an attempt to impose their own beliefs on all students in public schools. The curricula used in many abstinence-only programs were developed by religious groups whose views on sexual orientation, non-marital sex, contraception, and abortion are not shared by other religions and non-religious people. Parents may be unaware that their children are being indoctrinated into beliefs to which they do not subscribe and which are presented as facts. The Constitution forbids the promotion or preference of any religious perspective in a public institution, and public schools must address the educational needs of all students.
Abstinence-Only Education Silences Speech about Sexual Orientation.
Abstinence-only education excludes information and discussion about gay and lesbian sexuality. With its emphasis on marriage as the “expected standard of human sexual activity” and its statement that “sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects,” abstinence-only education reflects hostility to the very notion of same-sex relationships and stigmatizes students who are, or are thought to be, gay or lesbian.
Censorship of Sex Education Is Ineffective and Unnecessary.
The evidence shows that providing students uncensored access to comprehensive sex education does not promote sexual activity. And there is little evidence that abstinence-only education is effective in achieving its stated goals of reducing non-marital sex and teen pregnancy rates. Moreover, students who receive uncensored comprehensive sex education, which includes but is not limited to information about abstinence, are more likely than students who do not receive this education to practice safer sex more consistently if they do become sexually active.
The vast majority of parents want their children to receive comprehensive sex education which includes, but is not limited to, information about abstinence. This includes parents who believe that sexual activity outside of marriage is wrong and harmful, and those who do not. Because religious teachings, cultural traditions, and attitudes about sexual morality vary widely, it is particularly important to protect discussion and debate. Government censorship of disfavored ideas is incompatible with this essential aspect of the democratic process. Even if abstinence-only programs could be shown to have any benefit, we would still oppose substituting government control over information and ideas, for the right of individuals to learn, think and speak freely.
National Coalition Against Censorship*
Boston Coalition for Freedom of Expression
Endorsements as of June 29, 2001.
* The positions advocated by NCAC do not necessarily reflect the positions of each of its participating organizations.
Click here for our Fact Sheet and information about censorship incidents connected with abstinence-only programs. To help or to find out more, e-mail us at [email protected].
Note: The above statement has been slightly modified since appearing in the print form of Censorship News.