How should schools balance the requirements of the First Amendment and the educational mission of the school?
Educators need to balance First Amendment obligations against other concerns: maintaining the integrity of the educational program, meeting state education requirements, respecting the judgments of professional staff, and addressing deeply-held beliefs in students and the community. Educators enjoy wide latitude in exercising their professional judgment and fulfilling their educational mission if their decisions are based on sound educational and pedagogical principles and serve to enhance students’ ability to learn. Courts generally uphold a decision to remove a book or discipline a teacher if the action appears to serve legitimate educational objectives, including administrative efficiency. The decisions most vulnerable to legal challenge are those motivated by hostility to an unpopular, controversial, or disfavored idea, or by the desire to conform to a particular ideological, political, or religious viewpoint.
Administrators and educators who reject demands for censorship stand on strong ground; most professional educational organizations promote free expression and academic freedom, and many state educational standards call for students to be exposed to differing points of view. Access to a wide range of views and the opportunity to discuss and dissent are essential to education and serve schools’ legitimate goals to prepare students for adulthood and participation in the democratic process. It is highly improbable that a school official who refused to agree to censor something with educational value would ever be ordered by a court to do so. They may, however, be subject to massive public pressure.
How big of a problem is censorship in schools?
Censorship occurs every day. Often it’s invisible, taking the form of self-censorship: such as when a teacher decides not to use a particular educationally valuable story or book because of fear of controversy or when a librarian decides not to order a relevant magazine because of fears about possible complaints. No one can quantify this kind of “chilling effect” and its consequences for education. The American Library Association, which tracks and reports censorship incidents, estimates that for each incident reported, there are four or five that go unreported.
Can schools ban books?
Schools unfortunately can and do remove unpopular or controversial books from their classrooms and libraries. However, schools cannot punish students who bring their own copies of the book and read it during their free time.
Which books have schools banned?
The American Library Association maintains an excellent list of the most frequently challenged books. From 2010-2019, some of the most challenged books included The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Captain Underpants, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Kite Runner, The Bluest Eye, George, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Hunger Games.
Why do schools ban books?
Schools generally ban books to avoid bad publicity and to pacify angry parents. Most book bans start with a parental complaint. When a parent believes a book should not be in a classroom or library, he or she files a complaint with the school. Most school districts will form a review committee that will issue a recommendation as to whether or not the book should be banned. Depending on the district’s specific policy, the principal, school board, or superintendent will then make a final decision.
Why do parents complain about books?
Some parents worry that books can harm their children by teaching them about dangerous behaviors like smoking and drinking or by exposing them to “inappropriate” themes such as sex, violence, and racism. Religion is also a very common reason for wanting to ban books; some Christian parents have alleged that Harry Potter’s promotion of witchcraft is offensive to Christianity, and others have complained that reading pro-LGBT books violate their children’s religious beliefs.
How should a formal complaint be filed?
Different school systems implement complaint procedures in different ways, but most provide that:
- Complaints must be made in writing;
- Complainants should identify themselves both by name/address and their interest in the material (i.e., as a parent, student, religious leader, etc.);
- Complainants must have read/seen the entire work objected to;
- The complaint must be specific about the reasons for the objection;
- Complaints should request a specific remedy (i.e., an alternative assignment for an individual, or removal/exclusion affecting the entire school community)
How should a school respond to a parent complaint?
A committee – often composed of instructional staff, library staff, and administrators, and sometimes including students and parents – ordinarily processes complaints using pedagogical criteria. Its recommendation, though usually advisory, is the basis for the final decision about the materials at issue. The recommendation should only be ignored if there are compelling educational reasons. Materials should never be removed unless the complaint procedures are followed, and materials should never be removed prior to completion of the complaint process.
In anticipation of parent complaints, what can schools do to prepare?
Many school districts adopt formal policies and procedures for responding to complaints about materials–and for good reason. They clarify how complaint processes work; help faculty, staff, and administration fulfill their legal obligations; let parents and students know what criteria are used for removing materials and how they are applied; provide opportunities to understand more about community perspectives and values; and protect teachers’ academic freedom.
When materials are challenged, schools with well-articulated processes for handling complaints and reviews are more likely to resist censorship pressures than districts that lack such guidelines. Having policies in place and following them scrupulously ensures that complainants will receive due process, and that challenged materials will be judged on their educational merits rather than personal opinion. It also makes it more likely that all parties, including the complaining parent, feel that their concerns have been fairly heard and considered. It is important for teachers and administrators to be familiar with these policies and understand their significant function. Armed with knowledge of these policies, school officials are less likely to submit to pressure or react with unilateral decisions to remove books.
What should be in the school curriculum policy?
It is advisable for policies to contain a statement supporting intellectual and academic freedom, and an explanation of the importance of exposing students to a wide variety of material and information, some of which may be considered “controversial.” Policies should also clearly indicate that certain kinds of objections do not provide legally permissible grounds for removal, exclusion or restriction. Disagreement with a specific idea or message — and personal objections to materials on religious, political or social grounds — are the most common grounds for challenges and the most suspect. Such concerns may justify a parent’s request that his or her child be assigned alternate material, and if shared more widely, may suggest the need for discussion about how teachers and school officials can better explain the material’s educational value, and ways in which any perceived harms can be alleviated, perhaps through inclusion of additional materials. But such personal viewpoint-based concerns, standing alone, rarely justify removal of material and may raise First Amendment issues.
How have courts ruled in school censorship cases?
The outcome of censorship cases often depends on the factual context, how competing interests are balanced, and in some cases motive. As a result, decisions vary widely, and the same action can be upheld in one district and struck down in the next. This can be confusing, but a few rules of thumb are available:
- Policies and practices designed to respect free expression and encourage discussion are rarely, if ever, disturbed by courts. It is rare that a court will order educators to remove materials that have legitimate educational purposes, even if they cause offense to some. Many schools will offer students alternative assignments in such cases.
- The decision to remove material is more vulnerable, especially if motivated by hostility to particular ideas or speakers.
- The deference frequently shown to school administrators with regard to the curriculum is not always accorded when a dispute arises over material in the school library. Under a 1982 Supreme Court ruling, school administrators may regulate library content based on “educational suitability,” but may not do so to suppress ideas or instill political orthodoxy (Board of Education v. Pico).
Shouldn’t parents be allowed to decide what books their kids can read?
Yes. Parents can absolutely control what their own kids read, but they have no right to stop other people’s children from accessing “controversial” books. If a parent doesn’t like a book, he or she can forbid his or her child from reading it or request an alternative assignment from the teacher.
Parents have the right to decide whether to send their kids to public or private school (or homeschool them). But, as courts have observed, no parent has the right “to tell a public school what his or her child will or will not be taught.”
What does “age appropriate” mean?
One of the most common demands for censorship involves the claim that certain school materials are not “age appropriate.”
Educators generally use the term “age appropriate” to refer to the presence of cognitive skills to comprehend certain material. Education proceeds in stages, with increasingly complex material presented as students gain the intellectual ability and knowledge to understand and process it. For this reason, young children usually do not learn physics or read Shakespeare. Similarly, educators may decide that detailed scientific information about human reproduction might not be age-appropriate for six-year-olds, but would be appropriate for 12-year-olds who have been introduced to basic biology.
However, when censors complain that a book is not “appropriate,” they often mean that, in their opinion, students of a particular age shouldn’t be exposed to the material, not that they are too young to understand it. The objection usually comes up when the material concerns sexuality and usually reflects a fear that exposure to this subject matter undermines moral or religious values. Acceding to pressure to censor in this situation can be tantamount to endorsing one moral or religious view or morality over another.
Movies have ratings that inform parents about potentially objectionable themes. Should schools do the same for books?
Definitely not. As the National Council for Teachers of English observes, rating books “does not provide meaningful information and increases the likelihood that such books will be unavailable to students.” Ratings inherently “give a biased perspective, casting a negative light on listed books regardless of their literary worth, stoking unnecessary alarm over their content.” In other words, ratings create stigmas that encourage parents to challenge books.
But don’t parents have the right to know what their kids are reading?
Of course. Parents are welcome to request information about the curriculum at any time.
What is the danger of banning just one book?
There are practical and educational as well as legal reasons to adhere as closely as possible to the ideals of the First Amendment. School districts such as Panama City, Florida, and Hawkins County, Tennessee, have been stunned to find that acceding to demands for removal of a single book escalated to demands for revising entire classroom reading programs. Other jurisdictions have been pressed to revise the science curriculum, the content of history courses, sex education, drug and alcohol education, and self-esteem programs. Experience has shown far too many times that what appears to be capitulation to a minor adjustment can turn into the opening foray of a major curriculum content battle involving warring factions of parents and politicians, teachers, students and administrators.
Censorship based on individual sensitivities and concerns restricts the knowledge available to students. Based on personal views, some parents wish to eliminate material depicting violence; others object to references to sexuality, or to racially-laden speech or images. Some parents oppose having their children exposed to fiction that doesn’t have a happy ending, teach a moral lesson, or provide noble role models. If these and other individual preferences were legitimate criteria for censoring materials, school curricula would narrow to only the least controversial– and probably least relevant– material. It would hardly address students’ real concerns, satisfy their curiosity, or prepare them for life.
Once a school district accedes to a demand to censor, it can become increasingly difficult to resist such pressures. Once one perspective is accommodated, those with a different view come to expect similar treatment. Listening to community concerns and taking them into account in structuring the educational environment is not the same as removing material because someone does not agree with its contents. School officials always have the legal authority to refuse to censor something. They may need to do more to help members of their community understand why it is the right choice for children’s education.
What’s the difference between censorship and curriculum selection?
Teachers, principals, and school administrators make decisions all the time about which books and materials to retain, add or exclude from the curriculum. They are not committing an act of censorship every time they cross a book off of a reading list, but if they decide to remove a book because of hostility to the ideas it contains, they could be. As the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and International Reading Association (IRA) note, there is an important distinction between selection based on professional guidelines and censorship: “Whereas the goal of censorship is to remove, eliminate or bar particular materials and methods, the goal of professional guidelines is to provide criteria for selection of materials and methods.”
For example, administrators and faculty might agree to take a discussion of evolution out of the second grade curriculum because the students lack sufficient background to understand it, and decide to introduce it in fourth grade instead. As long as they were not motivated by hostility to the idea of teaching about evolution, this would not ordinarily be deemed censorship; the choice to include the material in the fourth grade curriculum demonstrates this was a pedagogical judgment, not an act of censorship.
Not every situation is that simple. For example, objections to material dealing with sexuality or sexual orientation commonly surface in elementary and middle schools when individuals demand the material’s removal with the claim that it is not “age appropriate.” On closer examination, it is clear that their concern is not that students will not understand the material; rather, the objecting adults do not want the students to have access to this type of information at this age. If professional educators can articulate a legitimate pedagogical rationale to maintain such material, it is unlikely that an effort to remove it would be successful.
Of course, hardly anyone admits to “censoring” something. Most people do not consider it censorship when they attempt to rid the school of material they consider profane or immoral, or when they insist that the materials selected show respect for religion, morality, or parental authority. While parents have a considerable right to direct their own child’s education, they have no right to impose their judgments or preferences on other students and their families. School officials who accede to such demands may be engaging in censorship. The decision about what to use in the classroom should be based on professional judgments and standards, not individual preferences.
How should schools decide which materials to select?
Sound curriculum development requires that educators with professional expertise decide which materials are educationally appropriate and consistent with the school district’s educational philosophy and goals, as well as with state law. School officials also have the constitutional duty to ensure that curriculum development and selection decisions are not made with the aim of advancing any particular political or religious viewpoint.
The NEA (National Education Association) Resolutions state that “quality teaching depends on the freedom to select materials and techniques. Teachers and librarians/media specialists must have the right to select instructional material/library materials without censorship or legislative interference.”
Similarly, the National School Boards Association (NSBA) policy on textbook selection emphasizes that its “first commitment” is “preservation of the student’s right to learn in an atmosphere of academic freedom,” and that “[s]election of materials will be made by professional personnel through reading, listening, viewing, careful examination, [and] the use of reputable, unbiased, professionally prepared selection aids.” The NCTE and the International Reading Association advise selecting curricular materials that 1) have a clear connection to established educational objectives; and 2) address the needs of the students for whom they are intended.
Significantly, the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) cautions that “professional judgment must not be completely subservient to the popular will. Educators’ primary allegiance must be to the integrity of knowledge and the welfare of students … materials must never be removed or restricted for the purpose of suppressing ideas.”
How should a school library decide which materials to include in their collection?
The ALA Library Bill of Rights, first adopted in 1948, recognizes the library’s essential role in providing resources to serve the “interest, information, and enlightenment of all people of the community.” With minor modifications, these principles also apply in the school setting.
The considerations specifically relevant to school libraries are identified by NSBA guidelines:
- To provide materials that will enrich and support the school’s curricula;
- To provide materials that will stimulate knowledge, growth, literary appreciation, aesthetic values, ethical standards, and leisure-time reading;
- To provide information to help students make intelligent judgments;
- To provide information on opposing sides of controversial issues so that students may develop the practice of critical reading and thinking; and
- To provide materials representative of the many religious, ethnic, and cultural groups that have contributed to the American heritage.
As is true with curricular materials, the ALA cautions that library materials “should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.”
How does censorship hinder a teacher’s ability to do their job?
By limiting resources and flexibility, censorship hampers teachers’ ability to explore all possible avenues to motivate and “reach” students. By curtailing ideas that can be discussed in class, censorship takes creativity and vitality out of the art of teaching; instruction is reduced to bland, formulaic, pre-approved exercises carried out in an environment that discourages the give-and-take that can spark students’ enthusiasm. Teachers need latitude to respond to unanticipated questions and discussion, and the freedom to draw on their professional judgment, without fear of consequences if someone objects, disagrees, or takes offense. When even one book in a school is censored, that creates a chilling effect on the school’s teachers, who might decide to drop potentially controversial books in fear that those books will be challenged.
How does censorship limit students?
Censorship is particularly harmful in schools because it prevents students with inquiring minds from exploring the world, stretching their intellectual capacities, and becoming critical thinkers. When the classroom environment is chilled, honest exchange of views is replaced by guarded discourse and teachers lose the ability to guide their students effectively.