With apologies to the able and competent school administrators we find in many districts around the country, bumbling censorship attempts such as those that happened recently in Riverside County, California, and Culpeper County, Virginia, call attention to a crying need to educate the educators. Some public school administrators seem just to have a propensity for censorship, perhaps arising from their political alliances, fear of parental displeasure, or an excessive tendency to act as a parent to students who are not really their children. Clearly, a lack of knowledge of Free Speech law and court precedents is a large factor. But whatever the root causes, there always seem to be some administrators who are willing to sneak into the library at night to remove copies of Catcher in the Rye, or tear a page out of a book of poetry, or require parental permission slips to allow students to read Harry Potter books, or remove the dictionary from classrooms because it contains dirty words. All of these have really happened. Courts have intervened in many such cases, forcing school districts to return books to the shelves and remove restrictions. Yet there seems to be a lack of institutional learning, with each new administration repeating the mistakes of their predecessors.
In too many instances it is publicity, not administrative competence, that decides the outcome. We have no way to measure the hidden cases, but it seems that where censorship succeeds, it succeeds by silence. If there is no public outcry, an act of censorship can remain in place, swept quietly under the rug. Courts, after all, cannot intervene in matters that have not been brought before them by somebody with a complaint. On the other hand, When censorship has been averted or overturned, this has almost always resulted from some individual or group 1) noticing that a violation of Free Speech has occurred or is about to occur and 2) raising a ruckus about it.
So notice. And Raise a ruckus.
It is increasingly clear that this is exactly why we need events like Freedom to Read Week and Banned Books Week. It is a natural instinct for at least some public officials to censor whatever they can get away with censoring. Anxious to be seen as proactive, and uncomprehending of the ethical and legal implications, they take rushed and ill-considered action. They'll make ridiculous statements like, "we don't support censorship, we just want to remove this book," without recognizing the depth of their self-contradiction. The inoculation against this disease is an alert and aware public.
When school censorship happens, or is about to happen, it is up to that alert and aware public to educate the educators -- the principals, superintendents and school boards that make the decisions. Many of them NEED to be taught:
- While the power of a school district to regulate the content of educational materials is great, that power has its limits.
- There are parents and other citizens in the district who are aware of, and opposed to, censorship in their schools.
- Censorship will not be allowed to sneak by unnoticed: newspapers will be called and the ACLU will be notified.
- Minors have Free Speech rights.
- Courts have intervened in many instances of school censorship.
This might sound rather basic, especially to those less censoriously inclined. But this is exactly the little bit of knowledge some school administrators so painfully lack.