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Isn't Censorship Part of a Parent's Job?

[Religion News Service, September 5, 1995]

An on‑line friend regularly sends me E‑mail titled "Hathos!" These are items that prompt a mix of hatred and pathos (and embarrassment, loathing, and other emotions). Something that showed up the other day certainly fills that bill: the liberal advocacy group People For the American Way is accusing America’s parents of censorship.

There are more bizarre twists here than when the boa constrictor swallowed a Slinky. In the first place, the behavior that is giving PAW palpitations turns out to be surprisingly mild‑‑ even motherly. According to PAW, 338 times last year parents brought formal objections to books and educational material their kids had encountered at school.

This sounds like discharge of a basic parental responsibility. When kids bring home books from school, parents had better look them over. When they object to the contents of those books, they had better speak up. Anything less is an abdication of the trust those parents assumed when their babies were first laid in their arms.

But in the sit‑down‑and‑shut‑up world of PAW, parents are supposed to pay taxes to support schools, volunteer for field trips, sew the pageant costumes, send in cookies on Valentine’s Day, but never, never comment on the ideas being injected into their children’s heads.

Gary Bauer of the Family Research Council has it right: "When a government restricts what its citizens can read ‑‑ that’s censorship. But when parents have an input on what local officials do in schools ‑‑ that’s democracy."

Democracy seems to be what these American Way folks fear most. In addition to 338 "censorship" incidents, there were 120 "broad‑ based" challenges, in which parents criticized something more than a single book; perhaps an entire curriculum. Or worse.

Matthew Freeman, director of research and program development for PAW, cites this example: "A failed censorship complaint might lead a disgruntled objector to run for the school board." The scoundrel!

Shocking but, yes, it’s still legal for parents to run for public office. Correcting that oversight is probably on PAW’s agenda for next year.

Astute readers are by this point adding 338 and 120, and coming up with a number close to 458 (how close depends on how long it’s been since their own school days). Doesn’t this seem a little … measly? Out of an entire country, during an entire year, parents only objected to school materials 458 times? (PAW hints there were more; these are the ones that are "confirmed.") Only 10 times in New York State? Only twice in Montana? Only 44 times in all of hopping California? This constitutes a threat? Well, if you demand that your decisions be absolute, and absolutely unaccountable to outsiders, even one "objector" is too many to tolerate.

"Decisions" is the point. Our schools are not repositories of every book published. Someone weeds through, deciding which books to include and which to exclude. That person "censors" constantly, rejecting many books which don’t quite make the grade.

The good news is that, most of the time, parents and school personnel agree on these decisions. Protests aren’t about putting the school district in hock to acquire every past issue of "Periodontics Today." But when there is disagreement, there’s no reason for parents’ voices to be stifled.

For example, according to PAW, the most frequently challenged books are two of the "Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark" series by Alvin Schwartz. My boys read and enjoyed these books ‑‑ we even own copies ‑‑ but I have to say they certainly live up to their title.

I would hope care is taken that these books are not available to younger children, those less able to handle the chills without nightmares. Probably a teacher shouldn’t read the stories aloud in class ‑‑ such a blanket imposition might harm the over‑imaginative lad for whom the story brings lingering misery. Once we begin calculating such subtleties, we can understand the impulse of some parents to simply remove the books.

I would support their efforts to do so. If my boys had done without "Scary Stories" they would have suffered no loss; there are lots of better books out there. These stories brought enjoyment, not edification, and if they brought another child terror it wasn’t worth the bargain.

But PAW would have us imagine hypersensitive parents offended by innocuous fun, reading group‑sex into "Snow White" and necrophilia into "Sleeping Beauty."

A more realistic example is this: An Ellicott City, Md., parent brought an objection against a book titled "Uncle What‑Is‑It is Coming to Visit!" According to news reports, the book uses terms like "fag," "queer uncle," and "leather queen," and depicted transvestites and "leather gays" (the book proclaims "This lifestyle is all right"). The book was in an elementary school library. The school review committee voted against the parent, but an associate superintendent overturned that decision and removed the book.

Of such involvement, discussion and debate is democracy made. Parents have every right, indeed responsibility, to affect the way their children are taught; other parents have a right to speak in favor of disputed books if they so choose. This brings us to the central question: What, after all, is the American Way?

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