Schools Face Censors’ Siege, Group Says
Novels, textbooks and other teaching aids in the country’s public schools faced mounting challenges from parents and religious groups during the 1990-91 academic year, according to a study released Wednesday by a censorship watchdog group.
California led the nation in the number of reported battles over school materials, which included works such as J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye,” sex education or self-esteem programs and a set of reading texts that critics say promote satanism and witchcraft.
“The far right has declared war on free expression and the First Amendment, and the public schools are vulnerable,” said Michael Hudson of People for the American Way, which conducted the study and declared 1990-91 “the single worst year for school censorship.”
California, home of four national Christian groups that are active in curriculum battles, is a leading “incubator for much of this censorship activity,” added Hudson, the Western regional director of the civil liberties organization founded in 1980 by television producer Norman Lear.
Officials of two groups described as censorship “ringleaders” by the report said Wednesday that they are merely exercising their right to have a hand in what their children learn.
“There is a place for censorship . . . for security reasons, or because something is inappropriate,” said Robert Simonds, president of the Costa Mesa-based Citizens for Excellence in Education and a national leader in textbook fights. “There are those in People for the American Way who would allow Hustler and Playboy in grammar school. We just think that’s ludicrous and immoral.”
Paul Hetrick, a vice president of the Pomona-based Focus on the Family, said the underlying issue in the book battles is “who has the superior vested interest in the future of the children.”
“We believe parents are vested by the Creator with that superior interest,” said Hetrick, whose Christian media organization has been active in challenging curriculum across the country.
The report documented 264 incidents as what it called “attacks on the freedom to learn” in 44 states, with 36 episodes in California. Nationally, the number of challenges in 1990-91 increased about 33% over the previous year.
Although about 5% of the protests were launched by liberal groups seeking to ban material they deemed politically incorrect, the majority were sparked by fundamentalist Christian groups or parents.
The most common targets were the “Impressions” textbooks, a reading series published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, that groups such as Focus on the Family say contain evil passages and are laden with dangerous references to the occult.
The group objected, for example, to a passage in a story for sixth-graders titled “The Foundling.” In it, three enchantresses find an infant in a basket and ponder what to do with him. “A sweet morsel,” answers one enchantress. “A tender lamb, I know what I should do.”
Other works that repeatedly came under fire included Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” and “100 Years of Solitude” by Nobel Prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
About one-third of the challenges focused on library books that were not required reading. In one Michigan school district, parents petitioned unsuccessfully for the removal of Webster’s Ninth Collegiate Dictionary, protesting that it contains profanity.
State Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig said that although there has been a concerted effort to ban the “Impressions” textbooks in California, “most school boards have resisted these pressures.”
“The hidden story is that, yes, there have been a lot of problems . . . but most boards have stood firm,” Honig said.
Hudson agreed. Although one in three challenges to reading materials succeeded nationwide, the rate of success in California was about 22%, he said. There were 16 California school districts embroiled in controversy over the textbooks last year, and all 16 decided to keep them.
But one district that retained the books--in Woodland, near Sacramento--faces a federal lawsuit filed by the Mississippi-based American Family Assn. Law Center. The suit alleges that the district is unconstitutionally promoting the religion of “neo-paganism” through use of “Impressions.”
Hudson said the lawsuit, viewed as an important test case, exemplifies a new national trend.
“We see an expanded tactic that involves dragging these public school districts into the courts and into long, expensive legal battles,” said Hudson, whose group is a co-defendant in the Woodland case. “It’s intimidation--remove the books or you’ll face a lawsuit you can’t afford.”
While lauding People for the American Way for backing “Impressions,” Honig said it was unfortunate that the group had not been equally vociferous in defending a controversial series of social studies books. The books, published by Houghton Mifflin for kindergarten through eighth grade, were adopted by the state last year despite a blizzard of broad-based opposition from Jews, homosexuals, blacks and other minority groups.
Hudson said group leaders had a significant debate over whether to include the fight over the social studies books in their report but agreed not to do so because the opposition included “legitimate academic arguments rather than sectarian or ideological attacks.”
Times staff writer William Trombley contributed to this article.
Here is a sampling of materials challenged in California public schools during the 1990-91 academic year:
* Impressions, published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. The reading series was the most frequent target of opposition, facing challenges in at least 16 school districts in regions as diverse as the Bay Area and Redding. Critics say it promotes the occult and is excessively violent. It was retained in all 16 districts; in Woodland, near Sacramento, a federal lawsuit by parents is pending. In three districts, parents were given the option of substituting other materials.
* Pumsy, In Pursuit of Excellence. A self-esteem and drug-prevention program for grades 2 through 4, it was opposed in at least two districts--Madera, where its use has been restricted, and Mt. Shasta, where the review continues. Opponents say it is anti-Christian and promotes homosexuality.
* The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood. The novel used in a 12th-grade literature class in Rohnert Park was challenged as anti-Christian and sexually explicit. It was retained after a committee review.
* I, Claudius. The PBS series used in high school Latin classes was opposed by Agoura Hills parents because it contains frontal nudity and violence. It has been retained.
* Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger. This book was removed from a Palm Springs eighth-grade English class after a parent complained about its use of profanity.
* The Legend of the Old Befana, by Tomie dePaola. A Modesto parent asked that the book be removed from the school library, complaining that it suggested there was no birth of Christ in Bethlehem. It was retained.
* Wizards. The spelling game for fifth-graders was removed from classrooms in Milpitas after parents objected to its use of symbols, fantasy and role-playing.
* The Stand, by Stephen King. The book and other Stephen King novels were removed from the junior high school library in Hesperia after parents complained about their use of profanity.
* Values and Choices. The sex education program was challenged in El Cajon because it mentions masturbation and homosexuality. It was retained.
* Peace and Nuclear Age. This teaching guide was rejected by the school board in Fresno after parents backed by a fundamentalist Christian group complained that it was anti-American and promoted New Age religion.
SOURCE: Attacks on the Freedom to Learn, 9th annual censorship report by People for the American Way