Nancy McCracken, Editor
Kent State University, Kent, Ohio
A WAR OF WORDS: LESSONS FROM A CENSORSHIP CASE
Not long ago I participated in a national symposium on the subject of "creativity, censorship, and power," the formal title of which was "A War of the Words." I am generally suspicious of our society’s exaggerated use of military metaphors to describe all manner of social debates (war on poverty, war on drugs, battle for equality), but a recent personal experience with censorship has caused me to realize that the language of war does have a place in our thoughtful examinations of what censorship is all about.
The "battlefield" for my particular experience with book controversy seems, at first glance, to be the most unlikely of places for such warring. While the battle was located in and around my community of Youngstown, Ohio, an old industrial city with an appetite for controversy no greater or less than many other places, it was sited in an event of celebration — a collaboration of schools, a university, and a community in an extraordinary experiment to encourage literacy among the area’s young.
This twenty-year-old "celebration of reading and writing," known as the Youngstown State University English Festival, is anticipated and planned for all year long. In early fall the Festival Committee (all members of the English Department at Youngstown State) send invitations to about 170 junior and senior high schools in a five-county metropolitan area, inviting them to the next spring’s Festival. To attend the event, students must read seven books on a Festival booklist (nearly all paperback young adult novels). Teachers, too, read the Festival books in order to prepare themselves for the session-leading and essay-judging they will do at the Festival itself.
While it takes place on normal school days, the Festival is a wholly voluntary, extracurricular event. Students are never required to come, and their efforts on Festival activities do not count toward their grades. And yet, because of its spirit and reputation, the English Festival has become a huge event, taking three days to complete, with nearly 1,000 different students, teachers, and parents in attendance each day (and hundreds more being turned away because of lack of space).
When students arrive at the Festival, they are swept into an invigorating day of activity. They all hear the author of some of the books they have read (recent guests have included Harry Mazer, Will Hobbs, M.E. Kerr, Sue Ellen Bridgers, Chris Crutcher, Cynthia Voigt, and Robert Cormier), enter impromptu essay competitions, collaborate with students from other schools on writing games and writing workshop activities, participate in "insight" book discussions, and attend original drama presentations based upon their reading (to name just a few of the nearly fifty different sessions taking place on each Festival day). The Festival ends with an awards ceremony, at which over 300 students per day are recognized for their reading and writing accomplishments. Annually, these ceremonies result in the distribution of over $15,000 worth of books, cash awards, and merchandise — all donated by businesses, individuals, and community organizations out of a desire to honor young readers and writers.
The YSU English Festival is a full-fledged, nationally-known success story. In its first nineteen years, over 50,000 students have attended. They have read in excess of 350,000 books, written in Festival activities and competitions over eleven million words, and received for their efforts more than a quarter of a million dollars in prizes. Still, despite its success, the Festival last year became a censorship battleground.
It was, of course, our book choices that got us into trouble. In anticipation of each year’s event, English Festival Committee members read extensively throughout the summer to select works for junior and senior high booklists. We are informed in our reading by a clear book selection policy, which states that the Festival’s aims are
Of course, these aims, while not guaranteeing controversy, certainly don’t steer us free of it, and in past years we had met our share: complaints about sexual references in Crutcher’s Running Loose , objections by Catholics to Cormier’s The Chocolate War , protests about the blunt class and gender issues raised by M.E. Kerr, and a variety of other skirmishes about language, themes, and subject matter. Such objections had made us properly aware of community and school concerns, but they had never resulted in a book withdrawal, nor in any serious self-censorship. We continued to pick the best young adult works we could find for area students, with young readers themselves in mind rather than their parents or teachers.
In the fall of 1996 the Festival Committee placed on its booklist a novel by the Australian author John Marsden entitled Letters from the Inside . An epistolary novel containing exchanges between two adolescent girls (one of whom, the reader eventually discovers, is imprisoned), the book contains some swearing, a few crass sexual references, and a chilling ending. But it is also a magnificent exploration of friendship that upholds widely held and quite conventional values on many topics. Knowing that Australia’s foremost expert in young adult literature, Agnes Nieuwenhuizen, would be a guest speaker at our Festival, we also selected the book for the interesting cross-Anglo cultural comparisons it invited.
About a month after the booklist was mailed to schools, I (as English Festival chair) began receiving a few calls of concern from teachers about the book, suggesting that the novel’s subject matter and language (particularly its use of the word "fuck") might provoke some reactions. Parents and teachers in area Catholic schools, in particular, were voicing objections to the book, and I began hearing a rumor that the Catholic Diocese itself might become involved in the matter. And so I called, immediately, to request a meeting at the Diocese, and a few days later I sat down with its school superintendent, director of instruction, and several principals and teachers to discuss the issue.
I learned, indeed, that some did take strong objection to the book’s language and content, particularly for the younger junior high students who might be reading it. I explained, as I often had in the past, that because the Festival is a wholly voluntary activity, no one was being coerced into reading the work. But I also explained that it would simply be unworkable to allow some students not to read it (as had been requested) because to do so would destroy the concept of a shared, required booklist (crucial to Festival activities and goals). The administrators solved the problem by deciding to inform parents of the controversy so that they could choose for themselves whether to have their children attend. It was a solution that I didn’t object to; the Festival Committee had, indeed, always encouraged parents to read Festival books along with their teens and to discuss the works with them.
This early skirmish in our war of words, polite and reasoned as it was, foreshadowed nothing of what was to follow. And, indeed, I believed for a while that nothing else would occur as I bustled my way into a new year with little more than a few additional calls of concern. But then in early February a dozen-line letter to the editor appeared in our local newspaper warning parents about the "objectionable" books on the English Festival booklist, and the battle was joined. By 8:30 a.m. the next morning, I was fielding an inquiry from a news organization that supported the Festival financially, wanting information about the controversy and wondering aloud whether it should withdraw its support. (So much for the champions of First Amendment rights.) As the week sped on, the pace of complaints increased; and, a few weeks later when the Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Youngstown went public with his call for the withdrawal of Letters from the Inside from the Festival reading list, the conflict was fully engaged.
It was at this point that the struggle came, metaphorically if not literally, to resemble a war. Battle lines were drawn, military strategy was employed, war correspondents flocked to the most recent firefights, and casualties were recorded as students’ registrations were cancelled by complaining parents or school officials. I even recall my Festival Committee, as we met to discuss the matter, joking that we were "hunkering down in the war room" to consider our next moves. The remark played for a laugh, but much later I realized that we might have been acknowledging one of our low points.
The English Festival controversy raged on the local radio talk shows, with citizens suddenly experts in a book none of them had read. Interviews were granted by the Bishop, by teachers, and by me. Fragments of Letters from the Inside (with swear words highlighted) were delivered to school administrators, television stations, and small regional newspapers. The Christian Broadcast Network in Virginia called requesting an interview. And complaints were filed with University administrators, some of them calling for my dismissal from the Festival Committee and even from the University.
As the Festival approached, it became clear that the intention of the most vocal complainants was to "wreck" the Festival by causing large scale withdrawals from it. And in fact, several schools did withdraw, including some Catholic schools, a nearby district that had just been through its own ugly censorship battle, and a rural district whose superintendent summarily withdrew its students at the first whiff of controversy (despite the fact that he had received no actual objections to the book and that all of the students in his district had already read Letters from the Inside by the time of his decision).
But, in the end, the English Festival was not wrecked. Because several new schools joined us for the 1997 celebration, we welcomed only four fewer schools to the Festival than had attended the year before. And because the cancelled student registrations were quickly gobbled up by other schools with waiting lists of students who wanted to attend, our student enrollment was within twenty of what it had been in years past (this out of a total approaching 3,000).
The Festival itself went off without a hitch. The local newspaper ran an article under the headline "Book’s obscenity fails to faze participants," reporting that student attendees responded to the controversy "with an unqualified shrug of the shoulders." Parents, teachers, and librarians attending special English Festival "open discussion" sessions about the controversy (added to the program with some trepidation by the Festival Committee) offered different points of view constructively and examined provocative issues such as age appropriateness and the role of literature in society. And through the entire three days the spirit of celebration was sustained, with students applauding the guest speakers loudly and cheering their peers eagerly at the awards ceremony. After the Festival, the Committee met and (if not directly, then at least implicitly) declared victory.
In the weeks that followed, as we dove into plans for a special twentieth anniversary event in 1998 (for which we are probably inviting further controversy by having back old Festival friends Bruce Brooks, Sue Ellen Bridgers, Chris Crutcher, M.E. Kerr, and Robert Cormier), I found myself reflecting on the controversy — what it had been about and what lessons it had taught. As in any passionate conflict, our ugly little book war, I realized, had probably resulted in more loss than gain. Students had been denied the opportunity to read. Teachers had been angrily confronted for their views. And books had been desecrated. (I say books because, by the time of the Festival, complaints had been received about nearly every title on our list — even Gary Paulsen’s comical Harris and Me , which was criticized for being un-Christian because of an off-hand reference to Jesus on one of its early pages. Apparently it’s true that angry book protestors can find something objectionable virtually anywhere.)
And so I took little comfort in victory, and in reflection pondered instead the lessons of our censorship war. They are these:
1. It’s a cliche, but still true: war is hell. I’m not sure that I can recall an experience in my professional career that was as physically and emotionally draining as the 1997 English Festival battle.
2. Censorship war combatants constitute a most diverse group. Some are fervent champions of a holy thought or two. Some are pragmatic trench soldiers who fight not so much in the name of a general principle as out of genuine concern for those in their care (and I count among these some of the most dedicated teachers and earnest parents with whom I interacted). And, unfortunately, censorship wars (like all others) mobilize passionate, eager soldiers who seem energized by the battle itself. Our chief complainant in the English Festival conflict was one of these. One single, angry individual caught the attention of the local Bishop, initiated media coverage of the event, hand-carried letters to a whole host of small regional newspapers, contacted the Christian Broadcast Network, and appeared before the University’s Board of Trustees. One determined soldier can have a tremendous impact upon a war.
3. Censorship conflicts are among the messiest of wars. Because battle lines are drawn according to passions, the issues in a censorship fight are sometimes hard to understand and reason out. I recall James Moffett noting in his reflections about the 1970s textbook wars in Kanawha County, West Virginia, that parents were so vigorously involved in that conflict because they "feared losing their children" through exposure to the books in question (Moffett, p. 5). I encountered a similar fear (and an accompanying anger) among many of the objecting parents that I talked to. The word "fuck," for example, was evidence of a social and moral breakdown in the community. The term itself was seen by them as a dangerous and ugly weapon, a wounding sword that might cut or gore their children.
And the fear of words grew also into a fear of situations and ideas. A secondary complaint that emerged in the Festival wars concerned the "adult situations" in some of our books. The primary criticism of this sort was directed toward Jacqueline Woodson’s poignant novel about child abuse, I Hadn’t Meant to Tell You This . Interestingly, most parents saw child abuse as an "adult" issue rather than one for or about young people. What they meant by that, I came to understand, was that it was a subject too grim to be presented to the young. Doing so would expose children to too much of the world’s ugliness, and thus, would destroy their innocence. For many, parenting seemed to consist mostly of creating a safe world for their children, and anything (including books) that threatened that safety had to be cast out.
In an essay entitled " More Power to Them! " John Marsden himself has entered this quarrel about the effect of "realistic" novels upon young readers. Children, argues Marsden, are not innocent in the way that Disney films and cooing-baby ads suggest. From an early age they understand and are capable of bad (even evil) thoughts and deeds. If children differ from adults, according to Marsden, the difference lies in their ignorance, not their innocence.
This distinction is the basis of Marsden’s argument about the role books might play for our young. "If," he says, "we accept that children are not automatically innocent and angelic, that they are complex, subtle humans, who are trying to overcome their ignorance, trying to acquire knowledge so that they can move to the positions of strength that the knowing adults seemingly occupy, then we can get a clearer idea of the role of fiction in their lives" ( Marsden , p. 103). If we care for our young, argues Marsden, then their ingorance must be approached with honesty about the world, not isolation from it. To meet ignorance with denial (or even silence) is to only perpetuate the naivete and to entrap children in it.
And yet that argument held no sway to our concerned parents, probably because it derived from a world view wholly different from their own. As a result, I found myself not always trying to defend this view (or a book exploring it) to our detractors. Instead, I spoke of the context in which our Festival invited young readers into the world I saw as real — a context that encouraged parent involvement and forced entry upon no one.
Reflecting now upon these verbal battles with parents, I can’t help thinking that those of us who care for books, and who espouse the freedom to read, would do well to understand the fears that drive our detractors (and perhaps to acknowledge that we have had a few ourselves). Our cause in protecting the freedom to read may be righteous, but imagining ourselves as crusaders in a holy war slashing our way through the barbarian hordes only heightens the pitch of battle. I felt best about my role in our controversy when I listened before speaking, worst when I mocked before seeking to understand.
4. Media coverage of the censorship wars is all action and no thought. It’s the battle, after all, that is of interest to most journalists — particularly video journalists who love to capture the action on film for the six-o’clock news. This lesson was made clear to me, dramatically, after I sat for a 25-minute television interview on the controversy and then watched the evening news report that followed. What I discovered was that I had been set up. My 25 minutes was chopped down into several ten-second sound bites that were then interspersed with longer tirades by our chief complainant, a parent who sat in his comfortable living room (surrounded by images of family and home) as he attacked my comments. With this father railing about our obscene books, the camera cut to a framed photo of his pretty eighth-grade daughter just as the father proclaimed her to be a victim of our careless actions because she had been threatened with such horrible language and denied a chance to attend the Festival. The photo image and voiceover resembled the coverage one sees on the local news of a grieving parent wailing over the loss of his innocent child to some vicious drunken driver.
5. We can learn something about the censorship wars from our young. Throughout the English Festival controversy I often found myself wondering about the young readers in the middle of this conflict. How were they reacting to Marsden’s novel? What were they thinking about the public debate? Were they being wounded in any way by either the grimness of Marsden’s story or the nastiness of the battle that was purportedly being waged on their behalf?
I needn’t have worried. First of all, the students seemed to have been very taken by Marsden’s work. Book interest surveys collected at the Festival showed that Letters from the Inside was by far the favorite Festival book of that year among both junior and senior high students. (Interestingly, the only other book to receive sustained criticism for its use of vulgar language, Harry Mazer’s semiauto-biographical The Last Mission, was the second highest vote getter.) But might not that result have derived from the controversy itself rather than from any appreciation of the works’ quality? A kind of halo effect, with a pitchfork standing in for the halo?
Wrong again. In advance of the English Festival several hundred students submitted essays to its Candace Gay Memorial Essay Contest, the topic for which in 1997 was "What makes a book a ‘great’ piece of literature for you? What book or books from this year’s Festival list are ‘great’ books according to your standards?" Because of all the controversy, we returned to those essays after the Festival was over, curious to discover whether they might offer any further insights into students’ reactions to Letters from the Inside . What we found was that Marsden’s book was the one most frequently mentioned (again, by both junior and senior high students) as a "great" work. And the reasons offered by students had nothing to do with "bad" language. Essayists wrote about the novel’s moving explication of the theme of friendship, about its compelling characters, about its dramatic tension and uncompromised ending.
6. As the battle rages, it’s essential to find one’s voice and to use it. Having a voice is absolutely essential in these struggles, not only to advance the cause of books, but also to maintain a personal balance. In mid-March, at the height of the English Festival conflict, our chief complainant asked for, and was granted, an opportunity to address the University Board of Trustees. Informed about his appearance a few days in advance, I was instructed by the provost to be at the meeting and to prepare a few remarks in response to his objections.
Late on a Friday afternoon, after a report about stadium plans and other regular business, the board chairperson came to the "new business" portion of the meeting, at which time he called on this individual and listened patiently to his rant about filthy words and moral degradation. As the complainant used his allotted five minutes, I readied myself to speak, but then just as he finished the unexpected happened: the chair thanked the man for his remarks, turned to his colleagues, and asked for and received a motion for adjournment. And before I knew what had happened, the meeting was gaveled to a close.
I was stunned, as were the provost and other Festival Committee members and colleagues in attendance. As I was to learn later, the chair had decided previously that any further attention to the issue was unwise, and so he elected to swiftly close the meeting. Having been informed about the controversy by the University president, the board members knew our position and were supportive of it. They saw no reason to have me speak.
But personally, viscerally, I had needed to speak, and having been denied the chance to do so, I came unglued. For the entire weekend after the meeting I raged around the house, my temples pounding, my back muscles so taut that I literally could not sit still, and my voice uttering curses worse than those in Marsden’s book.
Probably much of my hot anger was a testosterone-laced desire to retaliate. I had, after all, been attacked, and I wanted the various combatants and observers at the meeting to witness my brilliant and fiery counter-moves. I wanted desperately to "have my say," and I had been denied my voice.
At the end of that long weekend of anguish, however, I discovered quite by accident another means for "having a say," and it taught me why a voice was good for more than just retaliation. After replaying for myself all weekend, obsessively, the attacks that had been lobbed upon the Festival at the meeting, I walked into my study on Sunday and noticed on the desk the written remarks I had planned to use as part of my response. And I sat down and read them.
It is a dishonesty to say that the reading ended my raging, but it did calm me. Those of us who are preoccupied with offering and receiving language know that words are not just swords, but sometimes also shields. Reading my own remarks, I discovered, shielded me from my own replay of the board meeting attack. It offered protection and comfort by allowing me to affirm my own place in the battle. Writing out those remarks had provided me with a point of view, a sense of my own understanding of the debate, and reading them restored that sense. I knew where I was, and it was not where my detractor had been trying to put me.
In the censorship wars, "having our say" is essential. Sometimes, though, when there is no audience for our words, we might be well served by the silence that enables us to hear our own voices.
It has been months since the battles of the English Festival censorship war, but a recent occurrence has offered me a final lesson. Last week a reporter called in response to our press release announcing the upcoming twentieth English Festival celebration. In a brief phone interview, I talked to him about the delight voiced by five leading YA authors at returning to Youngstown for this special event, about the excitement expressed by area teachers, and about the special national conference on young adult literature that we will conduct alongside the Festival next spring. Well into the interview, the reporter asked briefly about this year’s booklist, alluded to last year’s battle over bad language, and asked laughingly about whether "the f-word" appeared in any works.
Had I been more alert, I would have immediately recognized the question for the impossible-to-answer "Have you stopped beating your wife?" kind of query that it was. And as a result of my lack of vigilance, on the front page of the next evening’s newspaper appeared an article not about upcoming Festivals or conferences, nor about noted young adult authors, but about swear words and book wars under the headline "English Festival: YSU tries to avoid controversy."
The final lesson of the censorship wars is that they may never really be over, for there are some who too eagerly relish the battle, and some who too easily profit from it. What I wish to tell that reporter is that our efforts have nothing to do with either avoiding controversy or provoking it. What we do at the English Festival is to search out good books so that we might encourage young readers. That’s what all good teachers do.
I’ll try to get that message out, but I now understand that in the din of the censorship wars, it’s sometimes hard to voice a clear intention amidst all of the shouting.
Marsden, John ."More Power to Them!" In The Written World: Youth and Literature . Ed. Agnes Nieuwenhuizen. Port Melbourne, Victoria, Australia: D.W. Thorpe, 1994, pp. 100-115.
Marsden, John . Letters from the Inside . Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1991.
Moffett, James . Harmonic Learning:Keynoting School Reform. Boynton/Cook Publishers, 1992.
Paulsen, Gary. Harris and Me: A Childhood Remembered . Harcourt Brace and Company, 1993.
Woodson, Jacqueline. I Hadn’t Meant to Tell You This. Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1994.
Gary Salvner is a professor at Youngstown State University in Ohio and a former president of the Assembly on Literature for Adolescents/NCTE.
Copyright 1998. The Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN #0882-2840). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale in any form.
Reference Citation: Salvner, Gary . (1998). "A War of Words: Lessons from a Censorship Case" The ALAN Review , Volume 25, Number 2, 45-49.