News & Politics » Feature

In the Realm of the Censors

Judith Krug works for the American Library Association, defending books like Huckleberry Finn and Slaughterhouse Five from bigots, fanatics, and intolerant fools. Lately she's been very busy.

by

1 comment

“If you have to dry the dishes
And you drop one on the floor—
Maybe they won't let you
Dry the dishes anymore.”

This excerpt from a poem in Shel Silverstein's A Light in the Attic is one of the major reasons for its being challenged or banned from a dozen libraries in the past two years. As noted by a Beloit, Wisconsin, school board, "The book encourages children to break dishes so they won't have to dry them."

It is ironic, in the judgment of Judith Krug, that in this, the bicentennial year of the United States Constitution, the great document and its hallowed First Amendment should be under unremitting assault by the forces of bigotry and goofiness.

"The direction of the country is bad, bad, bad!" says Krug, who is definitely not given to understatement. "It's just crazy. I've never seen it so bad."

Krug is in an unusually authoritative position to assess the situation. From her third-floor office in the American Library Association (ALA) headquarters at 50 E. Huron, she has direct contact with an army of some 45,000 librarians scattered throughout the nation's 100,000 libraries (about 70 percent of which are school related). They form the first line of defense when a book, record, or other library material is challenged as unsuitable for public consumption. And it is to her, the frank and sometimes feisty director of the ALA's Office for Intellectual Freedom, that they turn for counsel and support.

"I have the best network of any organization anywhere in the country," says Krug. "They're plugged into their communities, they're committed to the right of free speech and exchange of ideas, and they tell us what's going on."

Since 1980, notes Krug, the number of calls and requests for assistance has steadily increased, as censors seek to ban, purge, blacklist, expurgate, or bowdlerize library properties—and librarians, often falsely caricatured as timid, soft-spoken types, battle to preserve the public's right to access. During the current year, she declares, her office will "deal with" more than 1,000 separate incidents of censorship, ranging from the mere challenging of a book's appropriateness in the children's section of a library to the legal condemnation of a volume and its subsequent court-ordered removal from every library or school in an entire state. The Office for Intellectual Freedom is concerned especially with library book censorship, but it also gets involved with textbooks, films, records, paintings, sculptures, plays, and other vehicles of public communication.

"This is just a god-awful huge task," says Krug, looking somewhat weary, "but, you know, somebody's got to do it."

When Krug says she "deals with" 1,000 cases, she means publicized cases that receive press notice and in which she and her staff—of five full-timers and six part-timers—play some role. She is aware of at least another 1,000 cases a year that are settled quietly or on which the reports are somewhat muddled. In this strange world of charges and countercharges, it is no easy matter to sort through the details. "Besides," she adds, "there are hundreds and hundreds of other censorship cases we never hear about at all. We're just touching the tip of the iceberg."

Ever since she was a six-year-old child growing up in a small mill town near Pittsburgh, Judy Krug has been fascinated with libraries and reading—but it was a fascination tempered by fear. "The library was located in the police station in our town, and I was scared of policemen," she says. "But I wanted a book bad, so I rode my tricycle there, overcame my terror, went in and got my first library book. I can still remember the whole thing … and the policeman patted me on the head."

Krug got a degree in library science from the University of Chicago in 1964, went to work for the ALA in 1965, and started the Office for Intellectual Freedom in 1967. She and her husband, Herbert, live in Evanston and have two children, one in college and one in high school.

She has never lost her fascination with reading but has transferred her fear of policemen into an abiding resentment of the thought police: the censors.

After a yearlong battle, the Sallisaw, Oklahoma, Board of Education in 1986 agreed to return the book The Sisters Impossible to its school libraries in an out-of-court settlement. It had been removed because it uses the word "hell" seven times and the words "fart" and "bullshit" once each.

Krug refuses to discuss precisely what tactics she and her colleagues use when a book is challenged or banned. "Each situation is different," she says. "There's no typical case." However, she admits, it is rare for her or others from the national ALA office to appear in person before library and school boards, since out-of-town input can be counterproductive, especially in small communities. More often the case against censorship is argued by local library directors, board members, or respected citizens, with some coaching, ghostwriting, polishing, or fine-tuning provided through Krug's office or contacts.

The ALA wins about half the cases it's involved in, estimates Krug; a detailed tally is not possible because some cases drag on for years without settlement, and some apparent victories are later turned into defeats on appeal, and vice versa.

The basic defense foundation in all cases is the ALA's Bill of Rights, adopted in 1948 and amended several times since. The document says libraries "should provide materials presenting all points of view on current and historical issues. … Materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval. … Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment. … Libraries should cooperate with all persons and groups concerned with resisting abridgment of free expression and free access to ideas … "

In other words, says Krug, the ALA "can't remove something because it's anti-Semitic, racist, sexist, individualistic, pro-secular humanist, or whatever. And I'm convinced that's the way it has to be. Unless an electorate is enlightened on all aspects of the issues, we cannot govern ourselves effectively."

But what about clearly harmful and corrupting kinds of material? Surely the public, particularly the young, should not be exposed to that.

Krug looks as if she is in pain. "Who's to say which books are harmless?" she exclaims. "There's no such thing as a harmless book! Any book can be a force for evil if your experience has prepared you to accept it in a certain way. Books don't save or destroy people. They exacerbate what's already there from your experience and environment—they fit in with what's there!"

A school administrator in Wild Rose, Wisconsin, explained why he had unilaterally decided to remove Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee from the library. "The book is slanted," he said, "and if there's a possibility that something might be controversial, then why not eliminate it?"

Through its bimonthly Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom and its yearly resource book, published in conjunction with Banned Books Week (September 19-26 this year), the ALA's Intellectual Freedom office keeps professionals and the public informed of what the censors are up to and how their activities are shifting. It is these trends that largely account for Judy Krug's pessimism in the midst of the Constitution's bicentennial celebration.

Some things, of course, don't change very much. There are, first of all, the censors' "old, old favorites," which remain bloody battlegrounds for generations. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, for example, is still regularly challenged by the far right ("trash suitable only for the slums") and by the left ("creates an emotional block for black students that inhibits learning"). Nor is the lingering indignation with Huck limited to southern states. Among the more than a dozen challenges to the book's propriety in the last five years were attacks by groups in Winnetka, Waukegan, and Springfield, Illinois. Uncle Tom's Cabin and Gone With the Wind are still frequently challenged because of the use of the word "nigger."

No one is especially surprised at such assaults on established classics; they are expected to continue at a regular rate.

Then there are the "old favorites," which have been on certain hit lists for 20 years or so and are assaulted somewhere or other every year. Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird is still hunted because of shocking words like "damn" and "whore lady" or because the plot "does psychological damage to the positive integration process." J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye takes regular beatings in school libraries and classrooms from Florida to Montana due to "vulgar language" and "sexual scenes." Maurice Sendak's children's classic In the Night Kitchen is still stripped from library shelves because the hero, who is about five years old, appears naked in some of the pictures. Two years ago, Springfield, Missouri, school officials satisfied complainants by drawing shorts on the kid and restoring the book to the library.

Considered normal by Krug, these attacks too do not arouse unusual concern.

There is also an impressive list of contemporary favorites that arouse angry disapproval. Almost every book by Judy Blume, for instance, attracts a salvo of censorship efforts at libraries across the country, largely because her stories, which explore adolescence in frank terms and graphic scenes, are so popular with young people. Blume is unquestionably the leading living hate object for U.S. censors. Krug's newsletter cited more than 50 separate attempts in the past five years to remove Blume's books from libraries.

Other targeted authors in the contemporary category include Stephen King, whose horror novels, like Carrie, Cujo, and The Dead Zone, are frequently impaled for being pornographic or using foul language, and Kurt Vonnegut, whose Slaughterhouse Five has been in various places restricted to special library shelves, removed completely from circulation and even burned publicly for "obscene language" and its "reference to religious matters." And in the last two years, Alice Walker's The Color Purple has caused censors in Virginia and California to see red ("rough language," "explicit sex scenes"), and Jean Auel's Valley of the Horses was corralled by school authorities in Texas and Pennsylvania for excessively vivid depictions of prehistoric sexual activities.

To be sure, some contemporary titles seem to invite censorship: The Book of Lesbian Sexuality, for example, or The Lord Is My Shepherd and He Knows I'm Gay, or Doktor Bey's Suicide Guidebook, or A Woman's Guide to a Safe Abortion. Opposition to them is inevitable.

What disturbs Krug is "the level of intolerance," which she sees as "growing by leaps and bounds," threatening to swallow up anything that is even mildly controversial or that questions so-called traditional values. Why, at this late date, she wonders, should The Diary of Anne Frank be under attack in several states? One recent complainant found the book unacceptable because Anne told her boyfriend that it is sufficient to believe in "something" instead of urging him to accept an orthodox religious creed. "Can you believe it?" says Krug, waving a letter in the air. "This kind of stuff is coming to our office all the time now."

Examples of the new intolerance are abundant. Wilt Chamberlain's autobiography was blocked in a Gaylord, Michigan, school library because "pupils are more interested in learning how to dribble and shoot than in his off-court activities." Judith Guest's Ordinary People is under challenge in Ohio, New Hampshire, and New York high school libraries for being obscene, depressing, or "too intense." The Naked Ape was caged by another New York high school district for being "immoral, anti-American, anti-Christian and just plain filthy." Studs Terkel's oral history Working has earned numerous complaints, including this one from an Arizona school district: "When we require idealistic and sensitive youth to be burdened with despair, ugliness and helplessness, we shall be held accountable by the Almighty God."

A campaign was recently started in the Canton, Michigan, school system for the removal of two books, one on Zen Buddhism and the other by Saul Alinsky, and five movies, including Teen Wolf and Ghostbusters. "On every island he stopped, Columbus had his men erect a large wooden cross as a token of Jesus Christ our Lord," noted the citizens' committee. "It should be impossible to rule out Christianity in this free country. … Our children should not have to turn it off while at school and allow themselves to be taught witchcraft … "

Under special attack these days are books and films that deal in any way with Satan or the occult—and thanks to the glut started in the early 1970s by The Exorcist, there is enough material around to satisfy even the appetite of Saturday Night Live's "Church Lady." Groups like the self-appointed "God Squad" in El Cimino, California—three students and their parents—have gone on productive witch-hunts in school libraries, seeking to bar both serious works like America Bewitched: The Rise of Black Magic and Spiritism, and humorous or imaginative books like Curses, Hexes and Spells and Meet the Werewolf.

By association, books on Confucianism, transcendental meditation, reincarnation, and virtually every other non-Western theme are being called into question somewhere because "they make people question their faith" or they promote ideas that "contribute to social decay."

Also under siege, without reference to content or quality, are sex education manuals. In some places censors are satisfied to have the books put in a reserved section, out of the reach of children. In others the demand is that all materials dealing with sex be shredded, with the impetus usually coming from Moral Majority-type groups.

"As I see it," says Judy Krug, "this is the last gasp to save the myth of traditional values. People are yearning for the good old days in the 1940s and 1950s when everything was perfect. They want to resurrect that. Well, you can't, because the good old days never were! Don't tell me wife beating and homosexuality and sex abuse are all new things that never existed before! Who are they kidding? But there's this mind-set that says if we don't talk or read about reality, it'll go away. It won't. Traditional values didn't serve us in the 40s and they won't serve now."

Two years ago, a school board in Racine, Wisconsin, voted to ban the social studies book American Foreign Policy. It contained, they said, "judgmental writing," a flawed analysis of the Vietnam War, and "a lot more funny pictures of Republicans and nicer pictures of Democrats."

While the city of Chicago has been amazingly free of high-profile censorship cases, its south-suburban neighbor, Oak Lawn, was the scene of a hot confrontation in 1980 when a citizens' committee challenged the book Show Me!, which was on the parents' shelf at the Oak Lawn library. The book contained photos of nude children and discussed sex differences between boys and girls. In a dramatic appearance before the Oak Lawn library board, Nancy Czerwiec, leader of the committee, wrapped herself in an American flag, held her stepson in her arms, and declared he could never grow up to be a good citizen if Show Me! remained in the library. It's just the kind of book, she explained, that produces mass murderers like John Gacy. During the protracted legal battle, Krug answered media questions and kept in regular touch with Oak Lawn's librarian, Michael O'Brien, who was determined to fight it out with local resources. Eventually, a compromise was worked out; the book was retained but in a special reserved section. Two years later, following an antipornography decision by the Supreme Court, the publisher of Show Me!, St. Martin's Press, decided to cease publication of the book rather than risk a new legal fight. The copies of the book in Oak Lawn have had so much use that they have long since disintegrated, and Czerwiec has moved on to other arenas, most recently as an outspoken foe of the distribution of contraceptives on Chicago public high school property.

The sort of fire that blazed in Oak Lawn can flare up almost anywhere now, says Krug, given the escalating climate of intolerance and the desperate yearning for traditional values.

"When the issue comes out, what I do is get out my Magic Markers and redo the suit. For this one, I combined blue and purple and colored in the bust line and the hips where the bathing suit went up real high. The whole suit is blue and purple, so the kids can't tell that I did it. I also cut out the bathing suit pictures in the middle." (Comments from a school official in Wethersfeld, Connecticut, concerning the swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated, the most frequently stolen item in American libraries, according to the Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom.)

It's not just that people are less willing to live and let live, notes Krug, it's the institutionalization of intolerance through court decisions and the policies of government bureaucracies that scares her. Even if a more open-minded administration were to miraculously appear in Washington tomorrow, she says, it would take six years to restore some balance to the operations of government and the courts. "The mind-set that elected Ronald Reagan allows the Constitution to be trampled on," she declares, "and that mind-set is not dependent on any one person for survival. It permeates the bureaucracy."

For example, there's Attorney General Edwin Meese's Commission on Pornography. It recommended last year that states determine what is obscene, and therefore punishable under law, on the basis of "contemporary community standards" instead of the more widespread norm that defined obscene material as that which is "utterly without redeeming social value." The "contemporary community standards" rule seemed to open the way for each state—or county or village for that matter—to establish its own "community norms" and to trash as obscene anything that, in the opinion of the local community censor, does not conform. Thus Oak Lawn, for instance, could theoretically decide Playboy magazine or Lady Chatterley's Lover is obscene while Chicago finds both fully acceptable.

Taking their cue from Meese, legislators in four states began working on bills that would encourage this sort of localized morality. Several other states paved the way for tougher laws against anyone producing, selling, or distributing obscene material, however defined.

The issue was complicated, however, in early June when the U.S. Supreme Court dodged the contemporary-standards mine field and ruled that a work may be considered to have serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value (and thus not be obscene) if a "reasonable person" would find such value in the material taken as a whole. The decision, by a 6-3 vote in a case involving clerks at a Rockford, Illinois, pornographic bookstore, seemed to curb, at least temporarily, the rush to establish local norms and penalties. So-called community standards, whether statewide or local, are not to be the final arbiters of obscenity, said the high court; nor are the views of plain, ordinary citizens. The bottom line is what a "reasonable person" thinks.

Unfortunately, the court did not inform the public where to find such a person or even how to go about looking for one. That leaves the way open for all kinds of imaginative interpretations from every quarter. The three dissenting Supreme Court justices found the decision confusing, and argued besides that the government has no business making the sale of obscene literature to consenting adults a crime in the first place. Krug says that, until the air clears a bit, there is no way to tell where all this is going.

Earlier this year, parents in Boring, Oregon, sought the removal of In the Rabbits' Garden from the local school library. The story, about two rabbits living in a lush garden, "made a mockery" of the biblical tale of Adam and Eve. The author rewarded his bunnies for eating the forbidden fruit by allowing them to live happily ever after.

Especially ominous, in Krug's view, is the general direction of court decisions on censoring or banning school or library texts written with the traditional separation-of-church-and-state doctrine in mind. Since they are not permitted to endorse religious beliefs or values, these books try to adopt a neutral or secular approach to history, economics, values, and so on. Fundamentalist critics have always complained that such neutrality is leading to the establishment of a worldly, secular religion—one with a definite liberal bias—usually called secular humanism. Among the pioneers in the crusade of protest are Mel and Norma Gabler, a couple from Longview, Texas, whose Educational Research Analysts organization is a well-known clearinghouse for critiques of textbooks, dictionaries, and library books. Nothing escapes their eagle eye. When a civics book stated that "year after year, the Defense Department takes a very substantial slice of the federal budget," the Gablers called that a "subtle bias" in favor of the view that America should disarm.

Gabler-like thinking, which has been making headway during the last seven years, recently achieved two significant court triumphs. In the first, a Tennessee federal judge, Thomas G. Hill, agreed with a group of parents last October that a popular junior high text, Holt Basic Readings, indoctrinates students in secular-humanist beliefs and interferes with their rights to freedom of religion. He excused the children from attending any classes that used the book—a compilation of short pieces by writers like Isaac Asimov, Margaret Mead, Hans Christian Andersen, and L. Frank Baum.

Shock waves from the second court ruling are still being felt. In March, a federal judge in Mobile, Alabama, W. Brevard Hand (Krug calls him "Unlearned Hand" to distinguish him from the venerable Supreme Court justice) decided that 45 history, social studies, and home economics textbooks, all in wide use in Alabama public schools, should be condemned and removed forthwith from classrooms. They violate the separation-of-church-and-state doctrine, he said, by openly teaching the "religion of secular humanism." The most important belief of this religion, he wrote, is its denial of the transcendent or supernatural: "there is no God, no creation, no divinity. … Secular humanism is religious for First Amendment purposes because it makes statements based on faith assumptions … "

During the trial that led to his ruling, publishers of the books, including McGraw-Hill, Macmillan, Rand McNally, and Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, argued that their products are scrupulously neutral on the subject of religion. Hand disagreed, ruling that history and social studies texts discriminate against religion by omissions so serious "that a student learning history from them would not be apprised of relevant facts of American history." He resented, in particular, a description of colonial Christian missionaries as "oppressors" of Native Americans.

Hand also ruled against home economics texts for their treatment of family life, death, personal values, and sex roles. A statement in one book, "You are the most important person in your life," was found to be a "religious declaration," although in context it had nothing to do with religion. Said Hand, "Teaching that moral choices are purely personal and can only be based on some autonomous, as yet undiscovered and unfulfilled, inner self is a sweeping fundamental belief that must not be promoted by the public schools." The only legitimate use for the books in the future, he said, would be as a "reference source" in a comparative religion course that treats all religions equivalently.

Presidential candidate Pat Robertson called the ruling "a landmark case in America for the freedom of religion and the return of traditional values" and "a great victory for every schoolchild in every school."

Within two days of the decision, some 7,000 copies of the banned books had been removed from Alabama's schools and packed away in storage. Barred for their religious content were such volumes as Homemaking: Skills for Everyday Living, Our World Today, The American Dream, and History of a Free People. The paper pogrom was halted, at least temporarily, by the federal appellate court at the end of March, pending its forthcoming review of the case.

Meanwhile, book publishers declare they have no criteria for what the doctrines of this "new religion" may be, or how to avoid incorporating them in their textbooks. Alabama school administrators say public education has been thrown into a "state of chaos" because they don't know which texts to buy or what another federal court is likely to say. And librarians can only wonder at what supposed tenets of secular humanism will be found in the hundreds of hitherto-unquestioned educational books in the children's section. True, the decree applies only to Alabama—so far—but now that secular humanism's religious underpinnings have been exposed, a thrust to advance the cause of traditional values seems inevitable.

Without doubt, the decision will be reviewed by the Supreme Court. At first glance, it seems unlikely the high court will bless the Hand shake-up. Just two weeks ago it struck down a Louisiana law that required public schools to give equal time to the teaching of creationism and to evolution. And creationism (the theory that the world was created about 6,000 years ago in just about the way the Book of Genesis says) is a brainchild of the fundamentalist movement. Many observers regard Judge Hand as an anomaly, a good ol' boy relic of a bygone age, hopelessly out of touch with judicial precedent and the commonsense wisdom of the grass roots. Others, including Krug, are not so sure Hand is that far removed from Alabama's grass roots, or from Washington's either, for that matter.

In fact, the Supreme Court condemned creationism for precisely the same reasons that Hand condemned secular humanism—that it is a religious belief system subject to the protections and prohibitions of the Constitution. If the Supreme Court justices are to slap Hand down, they will have to rally their forces in support of secular humanism—a not very appealing prospect for the justices appointed by Nixon and Reagan.

"Do you wonder why I'm worried?" asks Krug. "Nobody knows what to expect next."

When pressed, she can provide other examples of the creeping institutionalization of censorship: the National Security Agency's recent decision to list as classified information certain materials that had been previously declassified and handed over to the Virginia Military Institute; the Supreme Court's upholding of a congressional law that allows any foreign film with which the government disagrees to be officially designated "political propaganda," although such a designation suggests the film is biased and unworthy of serious consideration; and an alleged threat by a member of the Meese Commission that led owners of the nation's 3,600 7-Eleven stores to stop selling Playboy magazine. "You don't have to look far to see what's happening," says Krug. "It's all around."

She moves into the outer office of her ALA suite, which is decorated with posters. "Libraries are the second defense of freedom," says one. "Reading is the first." Another, featuring photos of Hitler, Stalin, Castro, and Khomeini, says, "The experts agree: censorship works!"

"I'm a firm believer in the great experiment in government that is the United States," says Krug. "We have to have ideas and information available. It's our greatest natural resource. Somebody's got to hold high the torch!"

Emphasizing the point, she raises her arm in the air like the Statue of Liberty. Then she laughs at her flamboyance, but it is clear she is not kidding about standing on principle. It is equally clear that if the censors ever win, it will be over Judy Krug's dead body.

The Hernando County, Florida, school board recently banned the book Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Veterans from the middle school library because some of the accounts contained "harsh words." Profanity should never be found in school literature, argued the board attorney. Last year the same board ordered a high school senior class to change its yearbook theme from "It's All in the Cards," because it might be interpreted as an endorsement of tarot cards and demon worship.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Richard Laurent.

Comments

Showing 1-1 of 1

 

Add a comment