Issue 86, Summer 2002

Q: The First Amendment
a) Does not apply in New York
b) Does not apply to Regents exams
c) Does not apply to literature
d) None of the above
Explain your answer in 25 words or less.
(For correct answer, see below.)

The revelation that literary selections on the New York English Language Arts Regents exams have been routinely censored—without permission or acknowledgment—has outraged authors, educators, librarians, publishers, parents, and many others. Richard Mills, New York Commissioner of Education, caved in to protests and the hoopla in the press and promised—but failed to deliver—immediate reform. The new June exams, which Mills touted as censorship-free, censored Isaac Asimov’s True Love, and David McCullough’s narration, Surviving the Dust Bowl (American Experience).

NCAC and 14 other prominent groups were rebuffed when they sought to meet with the Regents. The Chancellor said that the Regents “are satisfied that Commissioner Mills is dealing appropriately with the matter of editing text for questions in State exams…The Board does not grant requests from organizations or individuals who wish to address them….”

The groups have now called on the State Legislature to hold hearings and address not only censorship on the exams, but educational accountability.

The exams, required for high school graduation, ask students to analyze literary passages whose meanings have been obliterated or distorted. 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 in Poland. Anton Chekhov’s story of servants strip-searched after a brooch was stolen was stripped of that critical information.

The alterations raise questions of intellectual honesty that go to the heart of education and intellectual freedom. The National Council of Teachers of English observes that “covert alteration of texts makes a mockery of the literature, its instruction, and, most importantly, of the student readers themselves.” If tests can exclude anything arguably “offensive,” what about the curriculum? Do other states find it necessary to purge tests of potentially “controversial” ideas? NCAC, NCTE, and others would like to find out. Stay tuned.

A: The correct answer is d. Ratified December 15, 1791, the 1st Amendment is the first codicil of the Bill of Rights. It applies nationwide to protect individuals from government censorship.

To read Professor Cathy Popkin’s letter to NYS Education Commissioner Richard Mills, click here.