Introduction | The First Amendment and Public Schools | Censorship | How Big a Problem is Censorship? | Roles and Responsibilities | Censorship Policies | Resource Guide


A. The Numbers: Censorship occurs every day in this country. Sometimes it’s obvious even if no one uses the “C” word. Sometimes it’s invisible–when a teacher decides not to use a particular story or book or when a librarian decides not to order a particular 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 (ALA), which tracks and reports censorship incidents, records a problem of significant magnitude, and they estimate that for each incident reported, there are four or five that go unreported. ALA states that between 1990 and 1998, 5,246 challenges were reported to or recorded by its Office for Intellectual Freedom. During the 1995-1996 school year alone, there were 475 challenges to educational materials, according to People for the American Way (PFAW). Both PFAW and ALA report challenges from all regions of the country and most states.

B. What Kind of Material Is Attacked? Almost 70 percent of the demands for censorship are directed at material in school classrooms or libraries. Most of the remainder are aimed at material in public libraries. Parents lodge 60 percent of the challenges. The American Library Association offers an instructive analysis of the motivation behind most censorship incidents:
The term censor often evokes the mental picture of an irrational, belligerent individual. Such a picture, however, is misleading. In most cases, the one to bring a complaint to the library is a concerned parent or a citizen sincerely interested in the future well being of the community. Although complainants may not have a broad knowledge of literature or of the principles of freedom of expression, their motives in questioning a book or other library material are seldom unusual. Any number of reasons are given for recommending that certain material be removed from the library. Complainants may believe that the materials will corrupt children and adolescents, offend the sensitive or unwary reader, or undermine basic values and beliefs. Sometimes, because of these reasons, they may argue that the materials are of no interest or value to the community.

Of more than 5,000 challenges recorded by the ALA over the past eight years, 1,299 challenges alleged the materials’ content was “sexually explicit;” 1,134 objections concerned “offensive language” in the material; 1,062 alleged the material was “unsuited to age group;” 744 complained about an “occult theme or promoting the occult or Satanism;” and 474 concerned objections about homosexual issues or “promoting homosexuality.” Other reasons for objecting to materials included nudity (276), racism (219), sex education content (190), or anti family sentiments (186).

While demands for censorship can come from almost anyone and involve any topic or form of expression, most incidents involve concerns about sexual content, religion, profanity, or racial language. Many incidents involve only one complaint, but nonetheless trigger a review process that can become contentious. Often, the parents who support free expression do not step forward to participate in public discussions to the same extent as those seeking to remove materials, leaving school officials and teachers relatively isolated. It is then their task to assess the pedagogical value of the materials carefully to avoid simply giving in to angry demands that could undermine educational objectives, send students and colleagues the wrong message, and invite additional challenges in the future.

C. What Does “Age Appropriate” Mean? One of the most common demands for censorship involves the claim that certain school materials are not “age appropriate.” The term is often used to mean that 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. Since many non-objecting parents support informing even young children about sexual matters, it is clear that the content of the material as much as the age of the child lies at the heart of the objection. Acceding to pressure to censor in this situation can be tantamount to endorsing one moral or religious view or morality over another.

Educators generally use the term “age appropriate” when they mean the point at which children have sufficient life experience and 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.

According to high school teacher Vicky Greenbaum, writing in The English Journal (vol. 86, #2, Feb.1997, pp. 16 – 20), the term comes from psychological concepts defining age-appropriate behaviors. She observes, however, that the rationale for psychological descriptions of the age at which certain behaviors generally occur has limited relevance to the selection of educational materials and literature in the classroom. If students understand the sexual allusions in Hamlet, she believes the discussion of it is “age-appropriate.” In contrast,
[a]dults who cling to this vision of youth as innocent have a corresponding vision of what’s appropriate, hoping perhaps that if youth are unexposed to certain elements in the world, they will remain pure, and the world will be a better place. Indeed, for such adults a pristine vision of youth often forms a wall between themselves and any adolescents they happen to know. Youth are people already possessing knowledge and vulnerabilities in ways akin to adults, and their greatest need may be for thoughtful consideration or guidance, while making sense of a vast, difficult, not always appropriate world.

Responding to questions about age appropriateness, the National Council of Teachers of English noted that “materials should be suited to maturity level of the students,” and that it is important to “weigh the value of the material as a whole, particularly its relevance to educational objectives, against the likelihood of a negative impact on the students….That likelihood is lessened by the exposure the typical student has had to the controversial subject….”

D. Who Gets Censored?
In 1998, ALA and PFAW found the most frequently challenged authors were Robert Cormier, Lois Lowry, John Steinbeck, R. L. Stine, Maya Angelou, Judy Blume, Robie Harris, James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier, and Katherine Paterson. In the 14-year period between 1982 and 1996, the most frequently challenged authors were Judy Blume, Alvin Schwartz, Stephen King, John Steinbeck, Robert Cormier, J.D. Salinger, Roald Dahl, Maya Angelou, Mark Twain, and Katherine Paterson.

The books targeted by censors included both popular and classic titles, affecting choices made by almost every age group. PFAW’s list of most challenged books from 1982-1996 includes:

  • John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men
  • J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
  • Robert Cormier, The Chocolate War
  • Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
  • Alvin Schwartz, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark
  • Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
  • Alvin Schwartz, More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark
  • Anonymous, Go Ask Alice
  • Katherine Paterson, Bridge to Terabithia
  • Roald Dahl, The Witches

Two years later, many of these works were still prime targets of censorship demands. According to the ALA, the most frequently challenged books in 1998 included:

  • Robert Cormier, The Chocolate War
  • John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men
  • R. L. Stine, Goosebumps Series and Fear Street Series
  • Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
  • Lois Lowry, The Giver
  • Luis Rodriguez, Always Running
  • Jane Leslie Conly, Crazy Lady
  • Judy Blume, Blubber