Monday, September 14, 2009

The Poison of Mindless Orthodoxy

An interesting, if somewhat obscure, court case I recently read about is called Right to Read Defense Committee v. School Committee of the City of Chelsea. The case was decided in 1978 in the US District Court in Massachusetts, so it's not a high-level precedent. Nevertheless, it does illustrate how little the West Bend censors have to stand on.

In Chelsea, Massachusetts, the school board removed a book of poetry from the school library. Students and parents sued. The court ordered the book put back in the library. The whole argument was about one poem in the book, which used language I'd rather not repeat here (CLICK HERE if you choose to read it anyway, it's in the footnotes to the page that will appear).

Two things are striking about this case. One is that the court acknowledged that the language of the poem was offensive (which is not the same thing as obscene). The other is that the court considered the motivations of the school board and found them to be reasonable: their concern with offensive language was genuine, and was not being used to cover up a political agenda. In spite of these findings, the court refused to find the poem obscene, declaring that both the poem and the book that contained it had serious value. The court determined that the school board acted improperly by removing an entire book based on one poem, and by failing to follow their own procedures for reconsideration of materials. The court held that the board violated the students' right to access the marketplace of ideas.

The legal framework surrounding a school library is quite different from that of a public library. Many more restrictions on Free Speech are allowed in the school setting, and courts actively avoid interfering in the authority of school boards to run their own districts. Yet a poem of undeniably racy language could not be censored, even when language really was the concern.
In the West Bend dispute, a higher standard for protecting Free Speech would apply, since the setting is a public library rather than a school library. Also, the censors of West Bend have more than demonstrated that their motivation is to push a particular religious and political agenda, based in homophobia. In this light, the WBC4SL and CCLU don't stand a legal chance.

The closing remarks in the court's decision are uplifting:
The student who discovers the magic of the library is on the way to a life-long experience of self-education and enrichment. The student learns that a library is a place to test or expand upon ideas presented to him, in or out of the classroom. The most effective antidote to the poison of mindless orthodoxy is ready access to a broad sweep of ideas and philosophies. There is no danger from such exposure. The danger is mind control.
---US District Court (Massachusetts) 454 F. Supp. 703 (1978)

A well-documented analysis of the case can be read in the New England Law Review 14(2), pp. 288-316. A shorter and less lawyerly discussion can be found in Herbert Foerstel's Banned in the USA: A Reference Guide to Book Censorship in School and Public Libraries (included among the books I recommend on the right-hand side of my blog homepage). See also the American Library Association's webpage on notable First Amendment court cases.


  1. That is a really fantastic poem. Pretty heavy coming from a 14 year old.

  2. I just noticed you added me to your blogroll. Thanks!

  3. You're quite welcome, notemily. And DanBack, I agree the poem is quite heavy. Interesting, though, to see how women perceive men, even when the women are quite young, and the men think their being subtle.

  4. I think to fully understand it tho you really have to live in NYC. Unlike places where people get in their cars, drive to work/school, then drive home, in NYC you are thrown in with thousands of people the second you walk out your door, then on the train, then as you walk to work from the train. That poem really nails what living in NYC is like for women at times.

  5. Wow, that's pretty deep coming from a 14 year old. I hope she continues to use that talent.

    Even living in a small town I've gotten a similar feeling once or twice, it's not nice and she captures it perfectly.