In Hanover, Mass., the school committee recently decided to ban a book, "Go Ask Alice," which had been taught at South Shore Vocational High School for 13 years. The book has been in trouble in a number of school districts around the country. So was the anonymous narrator. It's a diary of a 15-year-old girl who ventured into drug use and eventually died.
I don't know of a more frighteningly believable account of drug addiction than "Go Ask Alice." Robert Parkis, the teacher who assigned the book, told the Hanover School Committee, "This is the most moral book I know. I truly believe this book can save a life." Alas, however, Alice sometimes speaks profanely, and that's why she has been expelled from yet another school.
The most reliable box score of attempts and successes at censorship in schools and public libraries appears in each issue of the American Library Association's "Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom." 60611). The long list in the current issue starts with "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and includes "The Life Cycle of a Chicken." (The chicken's odyssey veers from the Biblical version of creation.)
In some cities and states, attacks on books, including textbooks, are on the rise. Or, as a vintage newspaperman, Phil Kerby, once told me, "Censorship is the strongest drive in human nature; sex is a weak second." A recent American Civil Liberties Union report, "Censorship in the South," covering schools and public libraries in Georgia, Tennessee, Louisiana and Alabama, indicates not only an increase in attempts at censorship but also a growth in the number of challenged materials that are actually altered or banished -- especially in school libraries.
The southern report affirms what teachers and libraries in just about every state have told me concening the "leadership role" that many school principals play in dealing with matters of intellectual freedom. "Usually if there is a complaint," a librarian in Georgia says about her school, "the book is removed from the shelf by the school principal." A review committee may be in place, but the quickest way to avoid trouble is to be quick.
The undiminished energy of the book investigators is greatly disappointing to librarians, teachers and many parents who thought a great First Amendment victory had been won in June 1982 by means of the Supreme Court's 5-to-4 decision in Pico v. Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District. It was the first time the court had directly dealt with a school board's power to remove a book from a school library.
According to the decision, a school board cannot remove a book solely because it does not approve of the ideas in it. It can, however, boot out books if they are pervasively vulgar or educationally unsuitable. (Thereby, a reasonably clever school board need never admit it objects to the ideas in any book it finds obnoxious. It can instead rely on the sweepingly vague grounds of educational unsuitability or vulgarity.)
The court provided two further huge loopholes. School boards may do what they please with books used in the classroom (only school library books have some First Amendment protection under Pico). However, the majority of the books under fire throughout the country are on required reading lists in the classroom. So, their First Amendment status is as perilous as it was before Pico.
In his dissent in that case, Chief Justice Warren Burger -- who believes school boards should be utterly free of the pesky First Amendment in all their book decisions -- had fun poking a large, logical hole in the exemption from the First Amendment that the other side had given curriculum books:
"It would appear that required reading and text books have a greater likelihood of imposing 'a pall of orthodoxy' over the educational process than . . . optional reading (in the school library)."
In addition, Pico declared that the First Amendment does not apply to the selection of books for the school library. It deals only with the removal of books. Yet, as librarians admit, some self-censorship does take place while deciding which new titles to buy. Many librarians are more courageous than that, but as one in Minnesota told me, "I am not going to buy any more Judy Blume books. I know the children, especially the girls, love them, but she is just too much trouble. And if her books are not on the shelves, nobody will be able to complain about them."