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Book challenges and banning get all the media attention but they are a small minority of the censorship that occurs in schools.
According to the American Library Association (ALA), 11,000 book challenges occurred in the past 20 years.
To call attention to these challenges and highlight the books banned as a result, the last week of September each year is designated Banned Book Week by the ALA and the American Association of School Librarians (AASL).
It is absolutely imperative to defend intellectual freedom and fight against book challenges, but in paying so much attention to them, it is easy not to notice the more pervasive and far more prevalent censorship that occurs in every public school every minute it is open.
I’m talking about censorship of the Internet.
The federal Children’s Internet Protection Act requires schools to ensure that children are not exposed to sexually explicit words and images in order to qualify for Federal technology subsidies. Almost all schools accomplish that by using filters that are designed to stop obscenity before it reaches student computers.
Don’t get me wrong, I have absolutely nothing against blocking student access to pornography at school, they get more than enough exposure to sexual messages in the mainstream media. But internet filters block much more than pornography.
“What we have is what I consider brute force technologies that shut down wide swaths of the internet, like all of YouTube, for example. Or they may shut down anything to do with social media, or anything that is a game. These broad filters aren’t very helpful because we need more nuanced filtering.” Karen Cator, United States Department of Education Director of Education Technology (Barseghian, 2011).
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Even the National Educational Technology Plan notes that in some cases internet filtering “creates barriers to the rich learning experiences that in-school internet access should afford students” and that tools such as blogs, wikis and social networks have the potential to support student learning and engagement.
Some argue that the anxiety over the internet that leads to filtering has less to do with possible student exposure to pornography or other sexual content and more to do with fear of unfettered ideas and the technology through which ideas are transmitted.
“Filters would not be placed on computers if government officials, religious moralists and the competitive marketplace didn’t feel their control slipping away or threatened” (Bissonnette, 2003).
Decisions about what to filter are made by filtering companies that are not held accountable to anyone and which refuse to explain the criteria for their decisions because they are trade secrets.
Educators and educational needs have been totally taken out of the picture.
New Canaan High School librarian Michelle Luhtala says the same issues of censorship, fear and free speech that make banned books resonate also apply to social networking sites that most schools block.
“Teaching with social media shows students how to responsibly use those platforms. Blocking access denies kids the chance to practice sharing their knowledge with the real world in a supervised setting” (Toppo, 2011)
Thanks largely to her efforts the ALA and AASL have declared September 28th to be Banned Sites Day.
One day. It is a step in the right direction, but much more needs to be done to protect student intellectual freedom and access to all age-appropriate learning materials.
Despite the efforts to restrict or cleanse the materials in school libraries, racial slurs, bullying, obscene language, sex scenes and violence will always appear in books students read. There will always be challenging themes, emotionally charged scenes, and characters with few traits to admire.
“Pretending there are no choices to be made — reading only books, for example, which are cheery and safe and nice is a prescription for disaster for the young,” asserts author Lois Lowry who has seen her book The Giver challenged and removed from libraries.
“Submitting to censorship is to enter the seductive world of The Giver, the world where there are no bad words, no bad deeds. But it is also the world where choice has been taken away and reality distorted.”
“And that is the most dangerous world of all.”
American Library Association (2011). Number of Challenges by Year, Reason, Initiator & Institution (1990 – 2010). Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/ala/issuesadvocacy/banned/frequentlychallenged/challengesbytype/index.cfm
Barseghian, T. (2011, April 26). Straight from the DOE facts about blocking sites in schools. Retrieved from http://mindshift.kqed.org/2011/04/straight-from-the-doe-facts-about-blocking-sites-in-schools/
Bissonnette, S.T. (2003). Smothering Free Speech. Journal of Library Administration; 2003, Vol. 39 Issue 2/3, p87-105. doi: 10.1300/J111v39n02_08
Lowry, L. (2005). A dangerous utopia. RHI for High School Teachers. Retrieved from http://www.randomhouse.com/highschool/RHI_magazine/pdf3/Lowry.pdf
National Educational Technology Plan. US Dept. of Ed. 2010, 54.
Toppo, G. (2011, July 25). Web restrictions draw ire of some educators. USA Today Retrieved from http://www.usatoday.com/news/education/2011-07-25-banned-websites-school_n.htm