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Intellectual Freedom and Censorship

by Archie L. McNeal - 1965

The author sketches a program and indicates useful materials for combating censorship in the schools. A seasoned veteran in this aspect of the battle for freedom, he puts special stress on preventive policies and extensive community involvement.

Director of libraries at Miami and president of the Association of College and Research Libraries, Mr. McNeal sketches a program and indicates useful materials for combatting censorship in the schools. A seasoned veteran in this aspect of the battle for freedom, he puts special stress on preventive policies and extensive community involvement.

THE ISSUE OF INTELLECTUAL freedom is one of the most crucial to be faced by all who are concerned with the life of the mind. The knowledgeable and wise interpretation of that freedom is a responsibility that is shared by librarians and educators. One has only to look at recent assaults by various individuals and groups on school reading assignments and the shelving of particular books in school libraries to document this point of view. Attacks on school textbooks and their contents give further proof of the extent to which would-be censors will go.

It may be that a sensed weakness in the two professions leads to the feeling that here is a vulnerable point. Certainly, there have been many instances of librarians, teachers, school boards, and library boards being intimidated and making little or no resistance to attacks. There have been other instances of strong and adequate defense. Much depends upon the preparation and foresight of the individual or group.

The freedom to read has long been a matter of concern to librarians. The American Library Association established its Committee on Intellectual Freedom in 1940, following the adoption in 1939 of a Library Bill of Rights. The provisions of this document included as one of its paragraphs the following statement:

Censorship of books, urged or practiced by volunteer arbiters of morals or political opinion or by organizations that would establish a coercive concept of Americanism, must be challenged by libraries in maintenance of their responsibility to provide public information and enlightenment through the printed word.

The library as a public institution is often the focal point of attack when an individual or a group becomes concerned with a book which is allegedly objectionable. It may be that the book is readily available at book stores or news stands, but the public library is a public institution supported by tax funds. The censor who seeks the suppression or removal of a book from the library shelves is at once establishing himself as the arbiter of what the public shall read and as a judge of what the content of books shall be. An individual is protected by law from slander and libel and can at least defend himself; a book is often attacked, castigated, and removed without benefit of trial. Legal provisions exist with regard to obscenity and treason; but for the most part, the action of censors is taken in extralegal ways, without any opportunity for defense of content by author or publisher.


Another provision of the Library Bill of Rights calls for libraries to "enlist the cooperation of allied groups in the fields of science, of education, and of book publishing in resisting all abridgement of the free access to ideas and full freedom of expression ...".

In 1953, a conference of representatives of the American Library Association and the American Book Publishers Council, meeting in Westchester, drafted a "Freedom to Read Statement." The prologue to this Statement has a familiar ring: "The Freedom to Read is essential to our democracy. It is under attack. Private groups and public authorities in various parts of the country are working to remove books from sale, to censor textbooks, to label 'controversial' books, to distribute lists of 'objectionable' books or authors, and to purge libraries." This document is of considerable strength and importance to all who may be threatened with censorship. After its endorsement in June, 1953, it was supported by other organizations, including the National Education Association through its Commission for the Defence of Democracy through Education. One of its principles relates to obscenity: "The present laws dealing with obscenity should be vigorously enforced. Beyond that, there is no place in our society for extralegal efforts to coerce the tastes of others, to confine adults to the reading matter deemed suitable for adolescents, or to inhibit the efforts of writers to achieve artistic expression." This principle provides a positive concept of the position of teachers, librarians, or administrators when the would-be censor seeks the removal of a book on the ground of obscenity. The first question should be whether the book is legally obscene, not just whether one person thinks so. There are many passages in the Bible, in Shakespeare, in Chaucer, and in other classics which may well be offensive to a particular individual. It is not the isolated incident or the phrase or passage taken out of context upon which the book must be judged. It is the book as a whole which must be evaluated. And the proper place for such an evaluation is in the courts, not in meetings of the PTA, DAR, or even school boards or city commissions.


In 1962, the National Council of Teachers of English produced a 21-page brochure entitled "The Students' Right to Read." It begins with the following statement: "Across America today increasing pressures are exerted on schools to restrict the access of students to important and worthwhile books. In many communities attempts have been made to remove literary works from classrooms and school libraries." This leaflet, while recognizing the fact that "at times school boards and administrators have defended the teachers, their use of materials under attack, and the students' right of access to the materials," in other cases teachers have been reprimanded and materials removed.

The documents referred to here are good and represent the position of respected professional organizations. Based on our constitutional guarantee of vital freedoms in the First Amendment, their principles are widely subscribed to. The difficulty comes in defending these principles as an individual against attack by some group or organization which moves to ban or remove a specific book or author in the name of decency, patriotism, or morality.

How can a school librarian defend The Catcher in the Rye, Brave New World, or 1984? How can the teacher of English defend the assignment of some similar title? How can the irate parent, the local committee of censors, or the organized right (or left) wingers be met and defeated?

In the first place, there must be a positive approach. Every library and school should have well-defined policies with regard to book selection. In 1961 the American Association of School Librarians approved a statement of "Policies and Procedures for Selection of School Library Materials" which can serve as a model for any school and be adapted to a variety of particular situations. A written policy statement, approved by the school board and understood by the principal and faculty, can be most helpful.

In the event of complaint, every effort should be made to identify the individual or group making the complaint, and the principal or school board should require that such complaint be submitted in writing. Establishing proper routines for receiving, considering and evaluating complaints can do much to maintain reason and balance.

Support by the press and other news media should be sought at the earliest possible moment. Very often, it should be made clear, the freedom to read and the freedom of the press go hand in hand.


In setting up a program of action, the NCTE proposes first, the "establishment of a committee of teachers to consider book selection and to screen outside complaints," and second, "a vigorous campaign to establish a community climate in which informed local citizens may be enlisted to support the freedom to read." As part of this procedure, there should be a clear statement developed by the English department, explaining why literature is taught, by what standards readings are chosen, and what reputable and unbiased guides are used in selection.

In handling complaints, should they come, the following procedure is recommended:

If the complainant telephones, listen courteously, and invite him to file his complaint in writing, but make no commitments, admissions of guilt, or threats.

If he writes, acknowledge the letter promptly and politely.

In either case, offer to send the complainant a prepared questionnaire so that he may submit a formal statement to the book selection committee.

The form provides for identification of the book by author, title, and publisher, with space for the name, address, and affiliation of the complainant. He is then asked to fill in answers to the following questions:

1. To what in the book do you object? (Please be specific; cite pages).

2. What do you feel might be the results of reading this book?

3. For what age group would you recommend this book?

4. Is there anything good about this book?

5. Did you read the entire book? What parts?

6. Are you aware of the judgment of this book by literary critics?

7. What do you believe is the theme of this book?

8. What would you like your school to do about this book?

Do not assign it to my child. Withdraw it from all students. Send it back to the English department for reevaluation.

9. In its place, what book of equal literary quality would you recommend that would convey as valuable a picture and perspective on our civilization?

This gives an opportunity for the individual to express his opposition. It also should indicate how thorough he has been in evaluating the material. With such information, it is much more likely that the school can give appropriate attention to the complainant and discuss rationally the basis for the inclusion and use of the book.

In defending textbooks, help can often be secured from the American Textbook Publishers Institute and from the NEA Commission on Professional Rights and Responsibilities.1


The need for defense against censorship is often belittled by those who have had little experience with it. The idea that it can happen to a local school or library seems difficult to comprehend. Yet today there is more than ever a tendency toward conformity. Television and motion pictures tend to avoid subjects and material that might be controversial or in any way offensive. When religious or patriotic groups protest, the reaction seems to be to accede to their demands and avoid trouble. The qualifications of the critics are seldom considered. By their sheer ability to be vocal, they achieve the status of spokesmen for the literate, often to the detriment of the more intelligent populace.

Wherever possible, the community should be informed of the policies being followed. The support of parents should be enlisted through such organizations as the Parent-Teacher Association, the American Association of University Women, the League of Women Voters, etc. Local civic clubs are often interested in the problems of censorship; and in many cases, by having advance notice of potential problems, they can eliminate trouble before it becomes aggravated.

In most communities, there are rational and intelligent citizens who will support the responsible professional teacher or librarian in the normal discharge of his duties. The average person will resent an attack on his own right to read, and once he realizes that the irresponsible action of censors will ultimately have a personal effect, he can be counted on for support. Many censorship efforts are of an anonymous nature, involving a telephone call or letter threatening action by special groups or authority. They can be handled by insisting on publicity.

If the purpose of American education is to develop an individual capable of reasoning and understanding, then it must be possible to train him in basic values through literature and history. He must have a chance to see the good and the bad, to read and experience, to achieve a sense of values on which to base judgments that will have validity. It is necessary that we defend the principles of the freedom to read and the professional responsibility of teachers and librarians.

The laws governing obscenity, subversive literature, and other immoral or questionable matter are subject to interpretation by the courts. The responsibility for removal of any book from public access also rests with them. In the school, the responsibility lies with the professional staff and with the school board. It is their privilege and duty to determine conscientiously which materials are pertinent and most appropriate to carrying out the educational objectives of the school. Once such determinations are made, every effort should be made to support the individual teacher and librarian in carrying out his educational charge.

1 For those interested, copies of the following materials may be obtained from the American Library Association, 50 E. Huron St., Chicago 11, Illinois:

Library Bill of Rights

School Library Bill of Rights

Freedom to Read Statement

Policies and Procedures for Selection of School Library Materials

How Libraries and Schools Can Resist Censorship

From the National Council of Teachers of English, 508 South Sixth St., Champaign, Illinois, copies of "The Students' Right to Read" may be secured at a charge of $.25 each, or $.10 each in quantities of 25 or more.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 66 Number 7, 1965, p. 574-578
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 2451, Date Accessed: 12/3/2021 5:05:31 AM

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