Political conservatives and members of the so-called religious right attempted more often than any other groups to remove material deemed objectionable from classroom shelves, according to the 11th annual censorship study released Wednesday by People for the American Way.
Overall, the study said, in the 1992-93 school year, parents, officials or organizations succeeded in 41% of 347 attempts to restrict or ban the use of teaching materials from American schools.
Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Color Purple,” which contains profanity, and Lois Duncan’s “Killing Mr. Griffin,” a book about students who kidnap and murder their teacher, were among the books removed from classrooms.
Seven percent of the reported incidents were attributed to liberals, who usually targeted materials they viewed as racist.
The study said religious conservatives or members of organizations described as far right--such as Citizens for Excellence in Education, the American Family Assn. and the Eagle Forum--were actively involved in 20% of the incidents and were believed to have inspired another 18%, based on the targeted materials and the arguments used to challenge them.
“Religious right groups are far and away the single largest political force promoting censorship in the schools,” said Matthew Freeman, research director for People for the American Way, a liberal-leaning civil liberties group.
Although he rejects the notion that his and other religious right groups are on a censorship crusade, Robert Simonds, founder of Citizens for Excellence in Education, acknowledged that his group is engaged in a nationwide effort to restrict materials that some conservative, religious parents view as offensive.
Martin Mawyer, president of the Christian Action Network, another conservative religious group, said: “These parents don’t want to send their children to schools which promote homosexuality, attack religious beliefs, use explicit sex education materials and delve into the psyches of their children.”
But Freeman argued that, because of their efforts, “a very, very slim minority of parents (are) able to veto what other people’s children read.”
The release of the survey highlights a growing debate among free-speech advocates and conservative Christian and parent groups over what is appropriate fare for America’s classrooms. People for the American Way said attempts at censorship are anti-American attacks on the freedom to learn. But parents who have tried to bar certain publications from their children’s schools say they are exercising their right to decide what their children should or should not read.
The total of 347 incidents of attempted censorship nationwide was roughly the same as in last year’s study but a sharp increase over 1990-91. An incident was defined as a demand to remove or restrict curriculum or library materials.
The survey cited 395 “attacks on the freedom to learn,” including the 347 attempts to ban or restrict reading materials, in 1992-1993, 376 in 1991-1992, 264 in 1990-1991, 244 in 1989-1990 and 172 in 1988-1989. In the 1992-1993 school year, California led the nation with 29 attempts. Pennsylvania was second with 26 attempts, followed by Texas with 21.
James D. Hunter, a professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, contended that the issue of censorship has escalated into a “cultural war” between the religious right and liberals that threatens democracy in America’s public schools.
“The reality is that both sides are anti-democratic,” Hunter said. “Each side has a moral view in which the very existence of the opposition is illegitimate.”
Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers and perhaps the country’s most respected voice for public education, cautioned, however, that there is a thin line between censorship and the right of parents and school boards to determine what is inappropriate for youngsters of a certain age.
“Communities have different values and will set different standards,” he said.
Community values decided the fate of “Killing Mr. Griffin,” in an incident cited in the study.
The book was required reading for eighth-graders in Bosnall, Calif. When a grandmother complained, the school district created a review panel of parents and teachers. Each read the book and voted whether to remove it from the reading list. The tie vote was broken by the school superintendent, who supported removal of the book.
“We need not be dictated to, but we need to reflect the mores of our community,” said Terry Ryan, who was superintendent at the time and now is an official with the county school office. “We’re not burning books.”
In Souderton, Pa., outside Philadelphia, the school board banned “The Color Purple” from a 10th-grade English honors course after a series of emotional meetings in which 150 parents, many of them believed to be members of religious organizations, called for the resignation of Marion Dugan, director of curriculum, because she supported use of the book.
Although she retained her job, 10 teachers either lost their jobs throughout the year or were disciplined in response to challenges to materials they used, the survey said. It was the first time, People for the American Way said, that it had found more than a few such incidents.
Not all of the criticism came from the right. When parents in Simi Valley, Calif., objected to the depiction of blacks in a novel used in classrooms, the Ventura County chapter of the NAACP joined the successful fight to remove it from the required reading list.