Censorship of books and select websites in school libraries: Pros & Cons

Censorship and freedom of expression within school campuses has attracted a lot of debate and discussion over the years. School authorities have a difficult time in ascertaining where to draw the line between free enquiry and moral hazard. It is a surprising fact that in a country with a rich liberal tradition like the United States, there have been over 250 attempts by school districts at book banning in 31 states. This is just in the last 4 years. As shocking as this information is, “over 85% of bans go unreported either due to poor media attention or lack of opposition. The threat of censorship is much greater than it appears at first glance.” (Brenyo, 2011, p.544) The issue of censorship is also witnessed in high school publications, where a perennial power tussle exists between “student journalists decrying potential violations of their free speech and administrators who point to their responsibility to protect the welfare of the student body.” (Jenco, 2008, p.1) While bans and censorship of scholarly content might be warranted in exceptional circumstances, the high incidence of issuing of bans and curbs in the country is not acceptable. The rest of this essay will present supportive arguments for this thesis.

In the tussle between student journalists and school authorities, the latter claim that they need to cross-check the content in order to take legal and financial responsibility for the publication. Moreover, screening the paper in advance enables them to tone down inflammatory rhetoric used by students. To ease the tension between student bodies and educators,

“newspaper advisers educate their administrators about First Amendment laws as they apply to student journalism and that the newspaper staffs, in turn, use their freedom responsibly. It’s important for a democracy, important for society, important for learning of students to know they have a voice and are expected to be responsible within the law but also be given opportunity within the law to demonstrate they can handle that.” (Jenco, 2008, p.1)

The first and foremost reason for not allowing books to be banned is the law. The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States says the “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” (Stewart Jr., 2007, p.552) Hence, those who ban books invoke breaches of law at several places. Not only does it amount to respecting the views of a religion in public institutions, but also prohibits free exercise of freedom of speech. It also breaks the spirit of the First Amendment by objecting to what is a peaceful assembly of students in the classroom. Books by Charles Darwin and his supporters are the most frequently prohibited items in school libraries, due to the exposition on theory of evolution they contain. Apologists for banning these books should remember that their action is unconstitutional by virtue of breaching the First Amendment at several places.

There are other legislations and case verdicts that stipulate the extent of intellectual freedom citizens can avail. The 1982 Supreme Court case Board of Education is one such; others include the Island Trees Union Free School District No. 26 v. Pico case and the 1988 Supreme Court case Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier. The verdict in the Pico case stated that an educational institution is not permitted to ban a book from its library just because its administrative board disagrees with the content of the book. The Hazelwood case allowed reasonable restrictions on content, mandated exacting criteria for imposing the same. But it is an unfortunate turn of events that subsequent courts have not respected the spirit of Pico and Hazelwood judgments. Instead, they have been providing a high degree of deference to school districts to ascertain if disputed content should be taken out from a school library or curriculum. The right course of action though “would be far more in line with the Supreme Court’s decisions to err on the side of retaining a student’s right to the content within a book, no matter how questionable.” (Brenyo, 2011, p.544)

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