Why 60 Years Of School Censorship Still Affects How We Think


Censorship in US schools didn’t truly take off until the 1950s, when McCarthyism made textbooks like “A Primer for Americans: Introduction to the Principles of Being American for School Children” essential classroom tools.

But, the tools didn’t stop there. The government also regulated free press, whitewashed material taught to students and restricted access to hundreds of books deemed to have pro-Communist content.

The motivation behind these initiatives, according to Eve Collyer Merritt, author of “The Extraordinary Injustice of McCarthy’s America,” was to define for the American people what opinions were acceptable and unacceptable.

But, while McCarthyism’s foothold in US high schools and colleges died decades ago, the precedent for censorship it set still exists and continues to impede learning.

In the past year, schools from Florida to Arizona have made headlines for their attempts to censor students and educational materials.

David Demers, a former journalism professor at Washington State University, for example, settled for $120,000 in early November in a lawsuit filed against the school, which he claimed violated his free-speech rights.

And, in Allendale, New Jersey, a school board is likely to pass a proposal, which would severely restrict the content of student publications after a local high school’s newspaper ran a story about conflicts between administrators and a former superintendent.

In addition to the student unrest, backlog of coursework and removal of real world experience, these measures demonstrated another problem.

This problem, as Merritt suggested, is that administrators are selectively and narrowly deciding what information students can access, and thereby reinforce the idea that some opinions are more acceptable than others.

Simply put, some officials are trying to teach students what to think and what values to have, not how to use information to come to their own conclusions.

And, the scary thing is, there isn’t much stopping them. Often, existing legislation even supports censorship, as is the case in Arizona.

A historically conservative state, Arizona has a law mandating public schools to teach students childbirth or adoption is preferable to abortion.

Consequently, the public school board in Gilbert, Arizona, voted in favor — a decision later reversed — of editing a chapter about birth control, drug-induced abortions and abstinence in the biology textbooks used in the area’s high schools.

Course editing is also prominent in liberal states.

Just look at Jefferson County, Colorado, where hundreds of students walked out of their classrooms in late September to protest a county school board decision that removed all mentions of civil disobedience from Advanced Placement US curricula.

Censorship issues haven’t always favored administrators and legislators, though. Several landmark Supreme Court decisions in the 1960s actually protected students' right to free speech in school.

It wasn’t until the late 1980s and cases like Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, which concluded that administrators could regulate school-sponsored publications, that tides began to change.

The Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier ruling, coincidentally, is what allows that school board in Allendale to put in its proposal a guideline requiring all student publications to “foster a wholesome school spirit and support the best traditions of the school.”

Now, these examples shouldn’t suggest that censorship is the only means through which students learn selective information.

Much like how a newspaper article has ingrained bias by what information the author chooses to include, a class has ingrained bias based on what chapters a teacher focuses on or what course guidelines state regulators set.

Nonetheless, existing laws and court decisions have had arguably the largest effect on censorship and selective learning in schools.

Precedents created in the past 20 to 30 years have set the stage for unobstructed intervention of student free speech, a trend many professionals fear is far from over.

A public records audit conducted by students at the University of Maryland earlier this year illustrates this. The audit looked at the monitoring of social media accounts for student athletes at public higher education institutions with NCAA Division I athletic programs.

It turns out 59 of the 83 schools polled, more than 70 percent, had some form of restriction on what student-athletes could post on the web.

With censorship proving to be a dynamic and powerful tool, the focus then shifts to how students and teachers can effectively combat censorship.

According to Jane Agee, author of “The Effects of Censorship on Experienced High School English Teachers,” one of the worst effects of censorship is that it silences people.

Fighting censorship, therefore, comes from speaking out against it, much like David Demers or the students and teachers in Jefferson County are doing today, and much like famous journalists and politicians did 60 years ago.

After all, McCarthyism wasn’t a fad. It didn’t end because censorship went out of style; it ended because enough people got tired of being told what to think and decided to take a stand.