Attacks on the Freedom to Learn

Every August for the past 13 years, People for the American Way has published an annual report that documents incidents of school-based censorship and other broad- based challenges to public education. This report, Attacks on the Freedom to Learn, provides a snapshot of the intense pressures America's public school are under by individuals and organizations attempting to impose their ideological or sectarian agendas not just on their own children or their members" children, but everyone's children. Included in its pages are attempts to censor educational materials such as children's books and classics of literature, health and sexuality education curricula, and student publications, speeches and plays as well as attempts to introduce Creationism into science classes, inject state-coerced prayer into the classroom and pass voucher initiatives in state legislatures. And while the materials that are most frequently objected to certainly are not limited to gay-related issues, there has been a steady and substantial increase in the number of incidents that cite this reason as the primary objection. Here are some examples:

  • In New Ipswich, New Hampshire, a respected high school English teacher was reprimanded and fired for placing 3 novels with gay or lesbian characters on an optional reading list in her classes and distributing them to her students after being instructed not to assign them. The books, which included Maurice by E.M. Forster, The Education of Harriet Hatfield by May Sarton and The Drowning of Stephan Jones by Bette Greene, had been selected by a school committee and were purchased with the approval of the superintendent in the summer of 1994 through a grant from the Respect for All Youth Fund in order to counter negative stereotypes of gays and lesbians. School officials claim the teacher was fired not because of prejudice, but "gross insubordination," contending that the books had not gone through the proper approval process.

  • In Rocklin, California, a school board ignored the recommendation of its 26-member committee appointed to develop course guidelines for a tenth-grade Family Life/HIV education class and adopted the pre-censored abstinence-only textbook, Reasonable Reasons to Wait, as the primary resource for the course. In addition to the implementation of the so-called "values-based" sexuality education program, strict limitations were placed on the materials teachers could use to supplement the text. Additional materials were proposed to satisfy the legal requirement that information on HIV and AIDS be included. These "factual, substantiated" resources included publications with copyright dates as old as 1980 and came under the proposed heading "Health Risks for Homosexuals." When an administrative complaint signed by more than 100 parents was filed challenging both the substance of the board's decision and the procedures by which it was reached, the school board accepted the review committee's recommendation to remove Reasonable Reasons to Wait on the grounds that it contained 151 grammatical errors and contained misleading and inaccurate information. The Board replaced it with Facts and Reasons. The board also added more materials to the course list so that teachers would have more flexibility in their selection.

  • In Belfair, Washington, a production of The View From Here, an assembly addressing issues of diversity, including sexual orientation, was stopped in progress by a high school principal when one of the cast members revealed to the student audience that he is gay. Several parents complained to the school about the play which they claimed had a "hidden agenda" that sought to "recruit" students into becoming homosexual. A letter was sent home to parents apologizing for the production whose content was "not anticipated" and "not presented as an acceptable lifestyle."

At the forefront of these efforts are Religious Right political groups such as the Christian Coalition, Eagle Forum, Focus on the Family, the American Family Association and Citizens for Excellence in Education. A disturbing 30 percent of last year's incidents were coordinated or appear to be inspired by these organizations. And last year's censors reached a success rate of an alarming and unprecedented 50 percent. To help combat this frightening trend and insure that America's schools will continue to be places of growth and learning, please report any information you have concerning an incident to Allison Beers at (202) 467-2342. People for the American Way can provide you with information and organizing assistance to fight a challenge or to prevent one from occurring in the future.

Copies of Attacks on the Freedom to Learn are available for $12.95 for People For the American Way members and $14.95 for non-members. Pre-paid mail orders only, please: People For the American Way, 2000 M Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036.