Censorship - American EducationThe alteration, suppression or eradication by governmental or other authorities of materials and ideas they deem inappropriate. Although long a source of conflict and mixed feelings among Americans, censorship has been an integral part of American education at every level since colonial times, when Protestant churchmen controlled schooling and censored all materials considered heretical and, therefore, either an affront or a threat to the church and its beliefs.
Traditionally, censorship in every land has been designed to protect the integrity of three basic institutions: the church, the state and the family. Heretical, pornographic and unpatriotic or antigovernment materials have, therefore, been the prime targets of censors. The First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States was the first official document ever to deny government the right of censorship. “Congress,” it says, “shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech or of the press. . . .” The Constitution did not, however, deny individual states the right of censorship. Until the Civil War, every southern state banned abolitionist literature. After the Civil War, schools throughout the South and in many areas of the North banned books that taught the theory of evolution or denied any but the most literal interpretation of the Bible as the true history of the world and the development of man.
Until recently, both the U.S. Post Office and Customs Service as well as local and state police actively seized books and other materials they considered obscene or seditious. Local police continue to do so in many areas of the United States. It was not until the 1920s that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment applied to state governments as well as the federal government. The Court did not, however, hold censorship to be unconstitutional. Indeed, the Court has ruled that the government has broad rights to prevent publication of a wide variety of materials during wartime if it deems those materials to be of danger to national security. It has upheld the government’s right to suppress free speech when such speech might “create a clear and present danger that . . . [the government] has the right to prevent”—as in the classic cases of someone falsely and maliciously shouting “fire” in a crowded room or, more recently, making a reference to bombs or weaponry while approaching or on board an airplane.
As for printed materials, the first federal court decision to curtail government erosion of First Amendment rights came in the 1930s, when it ruled that federal authorities did not have the right to ban importation of James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, because it contained obscenities. The use of “dirty words” in “a sincere and honest book,” said the court did not make the book “dirty.” Although the Ulysses decision cleared the way for students at some independent colleges and universities to gain access to erotic works, state and local authorities continued to deny the public at large the same right, and the Supreme Court has never explicitly forbidden such authorities the right to do so. In the 1970s the Court issued a series of sweeping decisions that gave government the constitutional right to enact laws to censor “works which, taken as a whole, appeal to the prurient interest in sex, which portray sexual conduct in a patently offensive way; and which, taken as a whole, do not have serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.” It also allowed any government at any level to apply “contemporary community standards,” instead of national standards, in determining what constitutes obscene materials.
The net result of the Court’s vague decisions has been to allow school boards, local government, local church leaders and parents to censor many materials used in American elementary and secondary schools. Apart from erotic books, many public schools in some parts of the United States have banned such socially provocative literature as John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. Nor have the courts interceded to prevent such censorship—except when it crossed the line into the area of religious freedom. Thus, the U.S. Supreme Court has consistently ruled that public schools may not teach “creation science,” “creationism” or any other biblical interpretations of world history or the evolution of man and the Earth. In almost every other area, however, the Court has granted local school authorities, school boards and state educational authorities wide latitude to censor and otherwise control the materials used in elementary and secondary schools, and, indeed, denied minors attending such schools rights to free speech and publication that are routinely granted to adults.
Indeed, the Court ruled in the case of Camer v. Eikenberry in 1983 that it lacked jurisdiction over subject matter taught in schools. Other court decisions have granted school authorities broad rights to censor student newspapers and other in-school publications, to regulate student speech and conduct and even student dress.
At the college and university level, however, the question of censorship becomes as murky as it remains for the rest of American adult society. Since 1971, when the age of majority was lowered to 18, and turned most college and university students from children into adults, those students have had the same constitutional rights in public facilities as adults everywhere. Even the most selective, private colleges are “public” if they receive any public funds, directly or indirectly, in the form of government awards to students or scholars. Only a handful of religious colleges remain so private that they can arbitrarily impose rules that limit a student or professor’s right to free speech and the right to publish.
Ironically, unfettered freedom from censorship has produced turmoil on some campuses, where hate groups have used their freedoms to intimidate fellow students and, indeed, impose a form of reverse censorship on those who would oppose them. Many campuses have seen faculty and students join together to shout down the president of the United States and other speakers whose views differed from theirs, and faculties at Yale and Harvard, among other universities, banned Army and Naval RESERVE OFFICERS TRAINING CORPS programs and associated studies of military science.
In the guise of eliminating censorship, some colleges and universities appointed political activists to their faculties to preach instead of teach in their classrooms. In some cases, the results have been courses that have distorted, exaggerated or even invented historical facts, while others have simply taught outright racism.
To try to combat racism, some colleges have introduced strict rules against “hate talk.” The courts, on the other hand, have handled the problem on a case-by-case basis that has yielded a series of often vague and conflicting decisions. One court gave a university the right to suspend a student who, while drunk, shouted racial epithets in a college courtyard for all to hear. But another court forced City University of New York to reinstate a black studies department chairman who taught his students that blacks were a superior race, that whites were inferior and that Jews and Italians were responsible for the economic and social problems of the black community in the United States. Although a federal appeals court later reversed the decision, the university was forced to retain the professor on its faculty, along with a white Jewish professor who claimed as adamantly as his black colleague that blacks were an inferior race.
The indecision of the courts, however, may reflect the indecision of Americans themselves over the censorship question. Throughout history, no society and no educational communities have been as free from censorship as those in the United States. Such freedom can inflict pain and hurt on others, who may well respond by attempting to restrict the right to speak and publish freely—until their own rights are curtailed. Censorship, like any other curtailment of individual rights, may simply be a part of the American dilemma over which individual rights are indeed inalienable. The Declaration of Independence declared only “certain” rights to be inalienable, but not all. The American educational community, like the courts and the rest of the American community, is still trying to define those rights. Most likely, the definition will continue to change from era to era.