Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” is one of the most controversial pieces of literature read in schools to date. The novel was first banned one month after of its publication in 1885, and nearly 130 years since then, this novel continues to be challenged, censored, and abridged by parents, educators, and publishers all across the country. In her article, “On Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Fin,” Dominica Ruta even states that Twain’s novel is “ranked number 14 on the top 100 Banned books in America,” and that it continues to be a debatable topic within school boards and government officials (Ruta).
When books are targeted, removed, or excluded, an atmosphere of suppression exists, which is damaging to our nation’s ideology of free speech and freedom of expression (Ruta). Under the Constitution, the people of the United States hold the privilege and basic right to express ourselves as we see fit, even if what we say is deemed unpopular or unorthodox. Yet, despite this, continued attempts to censor words, thoughts and opinions remain constant in everyday aspects of society, whether it is in the classroom, or in the general public.
Censorship and limitations of free speech occur especially when words and content reflect the ideals of homosexuality, sex education, and the basic idea of secular education (Ruta). School and public library books are among the most visible targets, and are frequently banned for these reasons. So, in order to keep their books on the shelves, publishers and writers may make revisions of their novels and literary works based on an overwhelming fear of scrutiny from the public, rather than for artistic purposes and expression. This type of overthrow is damaging to our country’s morality as a whole.
Teachers, along with students, publishers, and writers, need the freedom to draw on their professional judgment and say how they feel, without fear of consequences if someone objects, disagrees, or takes offense. Freedom of speech should therefore exist in all aspects of American society, whether in novels, public writing, or in the classroom when discussing such controversial writings. In his book, “The First Amendment in Schools: A Resource Guide,” Charles Haynes provides us with important information regarding the meaning of the term freedom of speech.
The Fist Amendment of the US Constitution provides us with five freedoms: speech, press, religion, assembly, and petition, which are collectively referred to as freedom of expression (Haynes). Free expression is vital to humanity and the foundation of a free society. Without free expression, ideas cannot be tested. Free speech specifically is what creates the space for the exchange of ideas in the arts, literature, religion, academia, politics and science, and is essential for the success of a nation.
Without this, individuals can’t make informed decisions and fully participate in society. Kris Ann Hall specifically quotes the Declaration of Independence’s definition of Freedom of speech in her article “Your 1st Amendment Rights,” that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances” (Hall). Free speech encompasses all expression of ideas and philosophy.
It means the right of a publisher to publish a controversial novel; the right of a newspaper to run an article criticizing the government, and the right of broadcasters to decide what content will flow over their airwaves. Governments, corporations, unofficial groups and powerful individuals often impose censorship to create conditions in which people perform self-censorship for their own safety and well being, which Todd Gilman relates to in his article, “Media, Popular Culture, and Communication Rights Research Guide: Freedom of Speech vs.
Censorship” (Gilman). In clarification, the act of censorship means, “to examine in order to suppress or delete anything considered objectionable” (Haynes). The central characteristics of censorship can relate to the suppression of an idea or image because it offends or disturbs someone, material that involves social issues such as sexuality, religion, race and intense language. So, it is literary works like the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that are banned from certain learning environments, due to its supposed “racist language. Because of this, the demand for educators to balance First Amendment obligations become increasingly more important, especially when in regards to free speech, and presented, therefore, are educational and legal reasons to adhere as closely as possible to the ideals of the First Amendment. School districts such as Panama City, Florida and Hawkins County, Tennessee have been stunned to find that acceding to demands for removal of a single book escalated to demands for revising entire classroom reading programs.
The school district in Island Trees, New York encountered objections to 11 books in its library and curriculum, including Slaughter House Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Black Boy, by Richard Wright, and The Fixer by Bernard Malamud. (Haynes). Other jurisdictions have been pressed, including the revision of science curriculums, the content of history courses, sex education, drug and alcohol education, and self-esteem programs, because they were seen as too intense for the classroom (Haynes).
So, why is it that “70 percent of censorship demands are directed at material in school classrooms or libraries” (Haynes)? Many people, especially parents, see the books that are banned as works containing profanity, and don’t want their children reacting to such controversial topics, because they might be tempted to try and re create some of the words, and situations presented to them. In an editorial piece written by the Los Angeles Times, these controversial novels are described as Trigger novels,” where their topics “are not only relevant to sexual misconduct, but also to anything that might cause trauma” (Rosenberg). Yet, profanity appears in many worthwhile books, films, and other materials for the same reasons many people use it in their everyday language, to convey emphasis or emotion. Works with profanity also contain realistic portrayals of how an individual might respond in a situation, and some teachers intentionally select such materials to remove the allure from topics such as cursing.
But even minor use of profanity has not shielded books from attack. Katherine Paterson’s awardwinning book Bridge to Terabithia contains only mild profanity, but it has been repeatedly challenged on that ground, as have long-acknowledged classics like Huxley’s Brave New World, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, George Orwell’s 1984, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. Part of the motivation for school library censorship is to keep material from students that are not appropriate for their maturity level.
Sometimes, though, the motivation is to prevent children from being exposed to material that challenges the value system of some parents or local community groups. Critics of library censorship argue that school libraries create opportunities for students to explore new ideas and, considering how diverse student bodies are, libraries need to include a wide range of books. It should be left to a student’s parents or teachers to direct them towards some books or away from others, but the options should still be there for patrons to make that choice.
There are ways in which we can promote first amendment values in schools. The school board’s role is to define an educational philosophy that serves the needs of all its students and reflects community goals. Open school board meetings can keep the public informed about the school district’s educational philosophy and goals, encourage comments, questions, and participation, and increase community support. Although public debate provides opportunities for community input and can ssist educators in meeting students’ needs and concerns, actual curriculum development and selection are tasks uniquely suited to the skills and training of professional educators. Similarly, the National School Boards Association (NSBA) policy on textbook selection emphasizes that its “first commitment” is “preservation of the student’s right to learn in an atmosphere of academic freedom,” and that “[s]election of materials will be made by professional personnel through reading, listening, viewing, careful examination, [and] the use of reputable, unbiased, professionally prepared selection aids” (Haynes).
In conclusion, censoring literary works hampers teachers’ ability to explore all possible avenues to motivate and “reach” students. Students themselves are unable to experience historical works and cannot experience reading certain groundbreaking novels. Also, by curtailing ideas that can be discussed in class, censorship takes creativity and vitality out of the art of teaching; and in the ideals of freedom of speech, where instruction is reduced to bland exercises carried out in an environment that discourages the give-and-take that can spark students’ enthusiasm.
Censorship represents a tyranny over the mind,” said Thomas Jefferson — and is harmful wherever it occurs (Hall). Censorship is particularly harmful in schools because it prevents student with inquiring minds from exploring the world, seeking truth and reason, stretching their intellectual capacities, and becoming critical thinkers. When the classroom environment is chilled, honest exchange of views is replaced by guarded discourse, and teachers lose the ability to guide their students effectively, and fail to mold them into well-rounded individuals.