Censors to the right of you, censors to the left of you
Book censorship in the US appears to be thriving as never before - but so is opposition to it. Over the past year citizens' groups in 48 states, from Maine to California, launched campaigns to remove, restrict, and revamp textbooks, library literature , and other teaching materials. Some of these controversies have ended up in court. Resolution has been mixed - with lower courts often upholding book banning and appellate tribunals reversing decisions on First Amendment grounds.
In the recent past the censorship thrust has come mainly from the political and religious ''right.'' Their claim was that public education in America carried the stamp of ''secular humanism'' and rejected books relating to creationism and moral teachings.
However, today's censorship efforts are broader, reports Barbara Parker, director of the Freedom to Learn project of People for the American Way (PAW).
Attempts to ban books cut across the political spectrum from conservative to liberal and is felt by big city libraries and school systems as well as rural areas.
And would-be book banners are much more sophisticated than they were a decade ago, adds Judith Krug, director of the office of intellectual freedom of the American Library Association (ALA). Of late, anticensorship groups like PAW, ALA, and the American Civil Liberties Union are being forced to alter their tactics to combat new waves of opposition. This includes campaigns being mounted by liberals, women's groups, and ethnic minorities to restrict or rewrite books which they see as containing racist or sexist references or material that promotes religious prejudices.
Also some would-be censors are trying to steal the ''constitutional'' thunder of their opponents, claiming that the use of certain ''anti-Christian'' textbooks violates their First Amendment rights.
A case now in the federal courts speaks to this issue, and if it goes to the Supreme Court, it could have widespread effects on censorship across the US. A group of parents and students in Church Hill, Tenn., brought suit against their school district, asking exemption from reading a series of state-approved textbooks that they allege are anti-American and teach the religion of ''secular humanism,'' thereby infringing on their constitutional rights. The publisher, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, says the books conform to national guidelines set by states. Eight million students nationally use these materials.
While some citizens object to their texts as left-leaning and antireligious, others are equally concerned that school books used by elementary and high school students tend to carry a fundamentalist Texas ''brand,'' which de-emphasizes the teaching of evolution and promotes so-called creationism. As the largest buyer of textbooks in the United States, Texas has influenced the broad direction of publishers, who admit that it is too costly to print one version for Lone Star State students and another for schools elsewhere. Meanwhile, isolated attempts continue across the land to ban classics like Mark Twain's ''Huckleberry Finn'' and Hawthorne's ''The Scarlet Letter,'' along with well-known works of Steinbeck and Hemingway and contemporary youth-oriented writings, such as those of Judy Blume.
ALA's Krug admits that censorship attempts have increased threefold since l 980. But she adds that there are ''good signs'' - more librarians and school administrators standing their ground and refusing to remove books from schools. Anti-censorship forces are also encouraged by a US Supreme Court ruling in the Island Trees (Long Island, N.Y.) case. The high court held that books could not be banned merely because the school board disliked the views expressed by the author. The majority of the court held that ''our Constitution does not permit the official suppression of ideas.''
Leanne Katz, executive director of the New York-based National Coalition Against Censorship, is the mother of two teen-agers. She says she understands parents' desires to protect their children against influences which challenge precepts taught in the home. ''But censorship only protects ignorance,'' she says. ''Being against censorship is not being without values. . . . We must arm our young people with tools for understanding and thinking about problems. And we don't do this by shutting them off from ideas or discouraging critical thinking.''