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)
Considering that the law is not on their side, those who purport to ban books, especially in the context of teaching evolution, have found other subversive methods of achieving enforcing censorship. The Kansas Action is a key example. It was in August 11, 1999 that the Kansas Board of Education voted to comprehensively eliminate references to biological evolution from the state’s science curriculum. (Beem, 2006, p.16) This was seen by commentators as a reactionary counter-attack by creationists. Retrospectively known as the Kansas Action, this decision represented a growing tendency among creationists to attack the teaching of evolution at the level of local school-boards. Moreover, since the highest court in the country
“rebuked state legislatures for their efforts to either ban the teaching of evolution or require the teaching of both evolution and creation-ism, creationists have shied away from using the state houses to achieve their goals. Rather, creationists now focus their attention on gaining control of school boards and influencing education at that level…Regardless of the resolution in this case, creationists will likely continue their crusade against the teachings of evolution. Unfortunately the real losers at the moment are the students of Kansas, who have been stripped of their fundamental rights guaranteed by the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.” (Stewart Jr., 2007, p.552)
Censorship in schools should also be analyzed in the context of new information/communication technologies available to students. In the arena of the Internet, for example, it is difficult to contain the nature of information being transacted. There are two warring sides in the censorship controversy. There are those who favor student autonomy so that the power of the ‘null curriculum’ is minimized. ‘Null curriculum is defined by Eisner thus: “the options students are not afforded, the perspectives they may never know about, much less be able to use, the concepts and skills that are not part of their intellectual repertoire” (Eisner, as quoted in Tedesco, 2009, p.55). The opposing camp claims that with restrictions imposed on content, schools are able to better educate students due to improved discipline. But some of the bans in recent times have proved very controversial. In Idaho, for example, students are prohibited from carrying iPods in the classroom so as to prevent them from cheating in tests. Even some of iconic cultural works have been banned: “JK Rowling’s world-famous book series, Harry Potter, has been banned from a variety of Catholic schools following claims that its writings are against Catholic dogma”. (Tedesco, 2009, p. 55)
In the Internet Age, the modes of socializing have also changed for school students. The proliferation of computer terminals and high-speed Internet connectivity has extended the school day beyond the campus. Students can now ‘chat’ after school hours using social media networks like Facebook, Twitter, etc. Proponents of restricted Internet activity argue that these social networking sites are potentially dangerous for vulnerable students. For example, social networking sites can be exploited by bullies to intimidate susceptible classmates. The cyber-bully can exploit the relative anonymity of the Internet and create an intimidating persona for himself. They can send scandalous or lewd comments and pictures to spread rumors, which can make the classroom atmosphere tense. It is for reasons such as these that some governments have banned a few popular websites from student access. (Holmes, 2006, p.1)
Prominent examples of censorship in recent times are the following: 1. the Australian government banned use of YouTube in the entire public schooling system, 2. the Canadian Teachers’ Federation has also created additional classroom resources to control cyber-bullying. But, educators must realize that their decision to restrict access to some resources not only goes against constitutional provisions granted to them (First Amendment in the case of American citizens), but also interferes with a pupil’s capacity to experience and deal with a range of perspectives on different subjects. Students are deprived of an understanding of constructive social engagement – lacking this skill they will be impaired in performing their roles as citizens of the country. They lose their critical questioning faculty and are at risk to develop a herd mentality. It is for these reasons that educators must realize that if it is their role to help students become proactive participants in the country’s democratic processes; and that this end will not be fulfilled as long as the phenomenon of null curriculum persists. (Boston, 2008, p.37)