Fighting Censorship: From School Libraries to Symphony Halls

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School librarians are often the unsung heroines of school censorship cases. That was true in suburban Contra Costa County where a fundamentalist Christian group in 1984 persuaded the Mount Diablo Unified School District to remove Ms. Magazine from the high school library because of its "moral impurity."

The group objected to the magazine's coverage of lesbians, abortion, contraception; its frank discussion of sexual issues; and its decidedly feminist analysis of current cultural and political issues. These qualities made the magazine valuable to teenagers, especially young women.

School officials later allowed the feminist periodical back on the shelves but required students to have written permission from the parents to read it,. School librarian Carolyn Benning explained that the restriction was tantamount to censorship. "The policy has effectively killed the use of the magazine," Benning said.

Rochelle Alpert, a volunteer lawyer for the ACLU who sued the school board, explained, "In California, education is a constitutional right granted to a child, not a parent. Permitting a parental veto strikes at the heart of students' ability to fulfill their own intellectual promise and to function fully as members of society."

A Contra Costa Superior Court judge ordered the magazine back on the library shelves – with unrestricted access for students – in August 1983.

Acclaimed Novels the Target of School Censors

Yet school rooms and libraries are a fertile ground for censorship of reading material.

A Christian fundamentalist group, East Bay Youth for Christ, demanded a ban on The Chisholms, a popular historical novel, from the Granada High School Library in Livermore in 1982. The group charged that the book, a pioneer saga about a Virginia family migrating west in the 1840s, made "open references to immorality and immoral sexual conduct." The school district at first removed the book, but returned it a short time later after protests from students and teachers.

An Oakland parent's complaint about Alice Walker's The Color Purple on similar grounds, resulted in a special committee being convened to determine the value of the book. The novel, the story of a black woman's experiences in fighting for dignity in the segregated, poverty-stricken rural south during the early 1900s, won the 1983 Pulitzer Prize and the American Book award, and sold close to a million copies. Yet the year after it won the prestigious literary awards, it was almost removed from school room shelves.

In 1999, the ACLU of Northern California sent a letter to the Laton School District Board of Trustees, protesting the removal of two books from use in English classes at Laton High School. One of the books, Fallen Angels by Walter Dean Myers, was the winner of the 1989 Coretta Scott King Author Award, and the other, Bless me Ultima, by Rudolfo Anaya, is widely considered to be one of the finest pieces of contemporary Latino literature. (Hear Rudolfo Anaya talk about Bless Me Ultima) In all of these cases, after letters were written to the school boards, the books were returned to the high school classrooms without the necessity of a lawsuit or a court ruling.

Plays, Movies, and Performances Threatened by Censors

The dramatic arts were also not immune to attempts by censors to silence them. In 1965, members of the San Francisco Mime Troupe were refused a permit to perform in public parks after reports that the Renaissance Commedia del'Arte piece they were to stage contained "dirty" words. The following year, actors in the play The Beard, Michael McClure's drama based on a fictional meeting between Billy the Kid and Jean Harlow in the afterlife, were arrested because of the sexual nature of the play. In 1971, innovative actor and producer Melvin Van Peebles refused to submit Sweet Sweetback's Baadassss Song to the Motion Picture Association of America for an MPAA rating because, as he put it, the all-white coding jury had no right to limit audiences for his film, targeted for African Americans. "If blacks were the censors," Van Peebles declared, "Stepin Fetchit would be an 'X'." See Melvin Van Peebles talk about Sweet Sweetback's Baadasss Song:

When Dianne Feinstein was Mayor of San Francisco, not only did she try to ban the movies Boulevard Nights (See part of Boulevard Nights on YouTube.) and Colors because she thought they would encourage gang behavior, she also tried to stop the 1981 performance of the Turkish Folkloric Ballet because she was afraid that Armenian protestors would damage the newly-constructed Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall

In the 1970s, the California Department of Corrections banned inmates from reading both Soledad Brother and California Criminal Law Practice -- they didn't want them reading about life in prison, or about the law that might help them get out. And in 1986, the Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles was informed that they could not use the word "gay" in their performance or publicity in an American Choral Directors Association convention.

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