Censorship in America may be on the rise

Scott Rogers

ook-burning. It is hard to imagine a more reviled word in the United States. To say the word is to conjure images of Nazi stormtroopers and Bolshevik mobs; it is to conjure the myth that it can’t happen here.
But while the streets of America do not echo with the jackbooted march of fascist gangs setting fire to libraries, books are censored in the Twin Cities.
“Supporting the First Amendment is a lonely business for leaders,” said Gerald McCoy, former Eden Prairie superintendent of schools. “People back away and say, ‘good luck.'”
While McCoy served as Eden Prairie’s superintendent, some residents attempted to suppress a section of a high school elective course for juniors and seniors that dealt with homosexuality. The course included talks with speakers who were gay.
The incident was counted as one of 18 attempts to limit academic freedom and free speech in Minnesota during the 1994-95 academic year in the 1995 edition of “Attacks on the Freedom to Learn”, published by People for the American Way, a self-described nonpartisan civil liberties interest group based in Washington, D.C.
According to the 1996 edition, there were 14 attempts to censor materials or curriculum in Minnesota schools or libraries in the 1995-96 academic year. Nationwide, the report concluded that 475 attempts were made to censor materials during that period.
Even these numbers, said People for the American Way Director of Education Policy Deanna Duby, represent “just a snapshot of what’s going on.”
“Four or five years ago,” she said, “we did the report and there was a professor in California, at one of the colleges there, who did his own research focusing on California. While we found about 36 incidents there, he documented over 320.”
The reports paint a picture of an America where book-banning is on the rise, where more books were censored this year than last, more last year than the year before. The 1996 findings start by stating “This analysis document(s) the broadest assault on public education People For the American Way has every reported.”
Those exact words were also the first sentence of the 1995 findings, although the actual number of incidents was nearly unchanged from 1995 to 1996. Taking only those incidents in which specific books were targeted for banning, censorship actually declined in 1996.
Reports of attempted censorship fell from 338 in 1995 to 300 in 1996; the success rate of such attempts also fell from 50 to 41 percent.
“How come the discussion is so consistent, even to the point of using the same words, when the data isn’t consistent?” asked Marc Herman, a former researcher for People For the American Way.
In a recent article reprinted in Harper’s Magazine, Herman called the document “an alarming report, mainly because every year it says that censorship is getting worse. The problem is, the numbers that support this startling conclusion are cooked.”
In Eden Prairie, the attempt to ban classroom discussion of homosexuality resulted in a school board decision to keep the curriculum but to allow only speakers chosen for their expertise, such as psychologists or doctors, rather than speakers chosen merely on the basis of personal sexual preference. The report counts this as censorship.
McCoy disagreed with that assessment. “I thought it was more of an integrating of the whole notion of what we were doing in the classroom.”
I thought the academic freedom of the teacher should be honored. Talking about homosexuality should be something we can do in the public schools,” McCoy said. “But you should bring in an expert, whether it be a psychiatrist or psychologist.”
“You have to remember what we saved,” he added, “we saved the opportunity to have freedom of speech for our teachers, who in the end were not muzzled.”
Duby emphasized that People For the American Way’s statistics might be off by a factor of ten while standing by the report, saying its statistics demonstrate an increasing appetite for censorship in America.
“Attacks on public education are getting worse, and part of that is censorship,” Duby said. “The all-out assault on public education by the right is broadening. They are able to use more power, more sophistication, and more cleverness going after the public schools.”
Duby cited the Christian Coalition’s drive to elect coalition-endorsed candidates to local school districts, and the power of conservative media networks to encourage parents to object to curriculum and books.
This points to the real agenda of the report, Herman said. People for the American Way’s “chief opposition is the religious right. While I was there, the organization’s goal was to make the religious right look bad — which is a fine and noble goal — but my thought is why are (People for the American Way) dwelling so much on this classic book or that classic book?”
“What they were trying to do,” he said, “was take a very complex dynamic and try to express it very simplistically for public punch. But that dynamic was around.”
There can be no doubt that censorship does happen, but the data reported in the document make it hard to reach any conclusions about the state of book-banning in America.
The report has two types of reported incidents. The first involves attempts to remove or restrict books or films from libraries or schools. The second category involves what the report calls “broad-based” challenges to schools, and includes attempts to include Creationism in curriculum or enact a school-voucher program.
Duby said People for the American Way sends surveys each year to curriculum directors, librarians, and teachers in as many of the nation’s nearly 80,000 public schools as possible. The number of surveys sent varies from year to year, but was about 175,000 for the 1996 report. The results of these surveys, combined with tips from citizens and clips from the press, are the source of the data reported in the report, said Duby.
But this information is largely absent from the report. The number of surveys sent, the return rate, and the possible margin of error are missing from the annual report.
University Professor of Statistics Douglas Hawkins said, given such methodology, the margin of error for a difference between 338 attempts at censorship reported in 1995 and 300 reported in 1996 might account for 50 incidents, making the change statistically insignificant.
Herman questioned the methodology of the report. He described being told to do whatever he could to make the statistics show an annual increase. “Their numbers are based on their ability to make the most simplistic argument at any point,” he said.
Herman said that, based on his two years as a People for the American Way researcher, censorship is “a bit like littering. It happens, and it shouldn’t, but the problem hasn’t really changed much for quite some time.”
“Folks Marc Herman’s age have never seen the way the highways used to be,” Duby said. “Until the 1960’s, when Ladybird Johnson and others started teaching people not to litter, roadsides everywhere were covered with junk. Littering was an epidemic. Thanks to vigilance and education, things have improved.”
Despite the warnings of each year’s report, it is impossible to say whether censorship is a growing problem or one which is, like littering, in check.
McCoy said he experienced cycles of attempted censorship during his 35 years in education. Although the incident in Eden Prairie was an attempt to silence diversity, the result was a pedagogically balanced result which protected the freedom of speech in the schools, he said.
By using only expert speakers, McCoy said, “we wanted to make this a very high-level conversation about sexuality and lifestyle.”
The class was challenged on ideological grounds, but it was changed for pedagogical reasons. The report did not make this distinction.
“When you say you’re not going to have this book because it’s a shitty, outdated book from 1952, that’s not necessarily censorship,” Herman said.
Herman cited the top-10 list of banned books included in each year’s report. The list gives no indication how many times a particular book was challenged or banned. This year’s most frequently banned book was “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou.
Duby said the book had been challenged about eight times nationwide in the last academic year.
“The numbers are less significant overall than the fact that these attacks continue in whatever form.”
Herman agreed that censorship should not take place, but questioned the value of framing what amounts to ambiguous data in the alarmist language of the report. “It’s detrimental when you’re not up-front about what you’re doing,” he said. “When you do this kind of activism under the guise of research, you risk marginalization.”
“People are pretty good at realizing that censorship is a bad thing. People get their knickers all in a twist about lots of things, but that doesn’t make it the scourge of the earth,” he said.
“Tyranny may not be close at hand,” McCoy said, “but we can certainly get there if we’re not careful.”