Incidents of school censorship and litigation are increasing, writes Rick Petosa of the University of South Carolina. He believes that censorship controversies threaten our students’ freedom to learn, our relationship with our communities, our professional integrity and the quality of the education we provide.
Petosa defines educational censorship as the “intentional use of power to restrict students’ exposure to ideas, to protect preferred beliefs or eliminate undesired beliefs.” Efforts to censor or control what is taught in our classrooms can come from a number of directions.
Censorship from many different directions
Surveys indicate the largest group of potential censors have been political or religious ‘conservatives’. However, ‘liberals’, minority organizations and feminist groups have also attempted to influence curriculum to make it adhere more closely to their beliefs. Teachers pressured by special interest groups learn to avoid confrontation by not teaching anything controversial. The effects of this kind of pressure are found in textbook publishing as well. Petosa believes this leads to educational mediocrity.
Teachers themselves have become involved in issues of academic freedom, albeit inadvertently, by being insensitive to community interests and complacent about their own version of the truth. By failing to teach objectively and by failing to discuss dissimilar perspectives which might lead students to form knowledgeable personal opinions, teachers can impose a form of censorship which discourages free intellectual inquiry.
There is no precise legal definition for censorship but obscene or defamatory materials can be restricted despite the fundamental right to freedom of thought, belief and speech which is protected by The First Amendment.
Teachers and administrators must understand the difference between informed choice and censorship when dealing with communities and special interest groups and be able to defend the choices they make concerning educational materials and curriculum. Petosa interprets informed choice as being able to separate “scientific fact from political issues and religious truths…” Students need to learn to do this as well, and they develop this ability by being exposed to a wide range of information and by practicing critical thinking and discussion skills.
While people have the right to influence the educational institutions that they support and to which they send their children, educators have the responsibility to protect intellectual freedom.
Typically, a situation in which censorship threatens occurs when an individual or group has strong negative feelings about something being taught in the school. Potential censors seek to gather evidence and involve local politicians and the media in their cause. In the past, this has led to the polarization of a community, to emotional statements and to a simplistic view of the problem. This, in turn, can lead to litigation as well as to long-term damage to the school and to the school’s relationship with the community.
Educators need to take an active role in involving the community in curriculum development in order to avoid censorship situations. Petosa recommends the establishment of “committees on intellectual freedom”. He warns that teachers must not simply let the community tell them what to teach. Rather, the purpose of the committee, which is made up of parents, teachers, administrators and school board members, is to develop a policy by which educational materials are selected.
Local citizens represent divergent viewpoints and educators need to be able to defend the importance of the educational material they use in terms of its benefits for the intellectual development of their students. Intellectual freedom can be protected if we bear in mind the rights of parents, students and teachers. Petosa believes that “educational censorship can be prevented if the rights of these three factions are protected when making curricular decisions.”
Listening to objections
Individuals concerned about something being taught in a class should be encouraged to talk with the teacher, who should be able to explain the procedures folowed in the selection of the material and its role in the curriculum. The individual, if unsatisfied, should be referred to the committee. The committee, as a coalition of community and school interests, should function to arbitrate differences in an objective manner.
Students have the right to a broad range of information, just as educators have the responsibility to use their professional judgment in choosing educational materials. Parents and community beliefs must, however, be carefully considered. Petosa recommends that particular efforts be made to educate school board members in these matters.
Attempts at censorship and the litigation arising out of it can be reduced if educators understand their rights and responsibilities, and are able to articulate the reasons for their judgments concerning educational materials. They should also have developed a clear policy and system for working with the community on these issues.
“Educational Censorship and School Health Education” Journal of School Health December 1988 Volume 58 Number 10 pp. 414.
Published in ERN March/April 1989 Volume 2 Number 2