Friday, March 20, 2009

Censorship and the Second Amendment

Contrasting Censorship in Music and Literature.

In Michael Dyson’s essay, Gangster Rap and American Culture, we are confronted by the idea of censoring rap music due to its obscene nature. Dyson makes a very important point which is easily lost in his complex essay, simply stating that, “Even Rap’s largest controversies are about representation.” Representation is the essence of a constitutionally established republic. Julia Bradly, in her paper Censoring the School Library: Do Students have a Right to Read?, states clearly that the nature of such a republic gives rise to a special importance for the first amendment (749). It is necessary for the functioning of a representative government that all people have free access to information. Censorship stands directly opposed to the first amendment which defends just such ‘intellectual freedom.’ “Intellectual freedom is the unrestricted access to legally defensible information unfettered by government intervention” (Simmions, 2001). The subject of censorship is central to understanding the cultural condition of our nation. In order to understand censorship’s central role we must first examine the nature of censorship in America and how censoring music is so akin to censoring literature. In doing so we will see that literature has a critical role in preserving the culture of a democratic republic.

The censorship of literature is the censorship of the very information which is the foundation of a child’s understanding of the human condition. In today’s world access to such information comes in many forms. A case in point is the expanding importance of the internet in American classrooms, which according to Simmons, “the percent of public schools connected to the internet has increased from 35 percent in 1994 to 95 percent in 1999” (p. 10). Simply observing the banning of the internet in countries like Saudi Arabia and the transformation of owning a modem in Burma to a capital offense demonstrates the power of the internet to provide limitless amounts of information. It also demonstrates the constraining power of censorship. Simmons also points out that this has brought about a modern class reflective of John Dewey’s conception of learning by doing (p. 20). In Dewey’s conception of learning students chose what to learn. Teachers act as guides to such learning rather then dispensers of knowledge. First the internet allows more time for reflection on information, as a result of its rapid recovery. Second it allows for a greater variety of information to satisfy the personal interests of students.

This new ‘Net Generation’, is thus allowed free exploration of all forms of modern literature and thought. What makes this so problematic? Simmons points a long held attitude of parents revealed to us in Wordsworth’s poem, We are Seven:


That lightly draws its breath,

And feels its life in every limb,

What should it know of death?

Simmons does not fully explain the poem (p. 15). It goes on to depict a family of seven brothers of children, two of which die, and one remaining daughter’s inability to understand death. It reveals a simple fact of life. Children are not adults but they deal with many, if not all of the same problems and emotions that adults do. Parents in America wish to protect the supposed innocence of children by appeals to the cliché of ‘family values.’ Michael Dyson pointed out that “’family values’ is a code for a narrow view of how families work, who gets to count as a legitimate domestic unit, and consequently, what values are crucial to their livelihood” (p. 166). A child’s freedom to read challenges this narrowly defined view of life by opening his eyes to the many different ways people live their individual lives.

Brief examination of last year’s ALA list of frequently banned books provides examples of such challenging view points.[1] A children’s book like And Tango Makes Three exposes children to homosexual life styles which challenge traditional family structures. One of my own personal favorites, the Perks of Being a Wallflower exposes students to controversial drug use and sexual abuse. These books do not expressly tell students to adopt a certain viewpoint. The latter even demonstrates the dangers of drugs and teen sex. But they do provide a sound basis for students to evaluate their own way of life. As James Symula states,

…the English course should not be considered a course that gives answers; rather, it should be thought of as an opportunity to help individuals develop in such a way that they become well adjusted, thinking, feeling, inquiring, wondering human beings (p. 128).

Denying a child access to such literature prevents them from developing as a human being. Unfortunately such an appeal to the importance of understanding the human condition is lost on the general public. Robert Gard experienced this general condition when dealing with objections to E. E. Cummings poem “I sing of Olaf.” In this case ‘parents argued that immortality, obscenity, and anti-American sentiments… regardless of literary value… stated that “If it’s in the text, its influencing students.”In a way such parents are right. Parents are trustees of the schools. As taxpayers they expect schools “to deal only with purity in thought and deed- inspiration rather than realism” (Gard, p.256). Students are sophisticated people and when they sense such attempts they can easily smell the hypocrisy.

On the other hand Gard also points out that even though students have a right to read, teachers do not have the right to require students to read any particular piece of literature.

It is one thing to feel free to examine a Brave New World… or the words of a controversial popular song which some students have experienced and are discussing. It’s another to require all students to read or experience such a selection.

This brings us to a crucial question about the limits of the first amendment. This is the same question which was confronted by Dyson in his discussion of Gangster Rap. That is where does the right of children to read, or to lesson, reach it limits, or does it even have any such limits?

Let’s take a look for a moment at what the Supreme Court of the United States has defined as obscene. That is material which ‘is descriptive or depictive of sexual conduct which taken as a whole, by the average person, applying contemporary community standards:

(a) Appeals to the prurient interest in sex;

(b) portrays sex in a patently offensive way;

(c) dose not have series literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.

As Bradly stated the first amendment not only holds a special place concerning information of political importance to the electorate, but also protects material of cultural value. This is seen even more vividly when the politics and culture collide, as in the case of rap group N.W.A.’s 1988 track ‘Fuck the Police.’ In this track Ice-Cube, MC Ren, and Eazy-E portray a mock court room where LAPD is placed on trail for the fictional killing of a minority. The track is laced with obscenities and violent references including threats against LAPD officers. Is this the sort of culture the first amendment protects? Well clearly there is no sexsual reference to make it obscene in nature, but the use of obscene language alone would offend the average member of my community. But for the young black male growing up in a post ‘Rodney King’ Los Angeles the cultural value is clear. The track becomes an outlet for the rage felt by minorities towards the police brutality that many have themselves witnessed.

A track from a rap album may not seem applicable to banning literature from a public school library. Untill you reduce it to printed word. In black and white laid side by side with E.E. Cummings ‘i sing of Olaf glad and big’ we see that the objections to each are strikingly similar.[2] They are each claimed to be obscene, to strike out at accepted societal norms, and both shed light on the moral ambiguity of some unexamined part of our society. It seems as the ideas of the free market place have become intertwined in some sense with the idols of the market place. In the words of Francis Bacon, ‘by discourse that men associate, and words are imposed according to the apprehension of the vulgar. And therefore the ill and unfit choice of words wonderfully obstructs the understanding.’ Words have the power of distorting the true message of anything. In both the cases before us, society has been consumed by the vulgar nature of words, and has lost all understanding of the underlying message.

Why should we become so transfixed on preserving the school library as a market place of ideas? Why protect the very literature which causes so much controversy? John Dewey in his ground breaking Democracy and Education explains quite simply for us the importance of all forms of literature in education. In the simplest of terms Dewey let us know that literature more than anything else is simply fun. Literature first found its home in the educational institutions of the landed aristocracies of Europe. In Europe education was about becoming a refined gentleman who was destined to become a member of the ruling class. In the US the public school system has been designed to promote the very democratic principles which Bradly stated lead to the preferred status of the first amendment. This is not only because an informed electorate is needed to preserve democratic government but because the free access to the art form of literature is what helps the common man become the equal of the ruling classes. Literature and all forms of art in education are described by Dewey as follows:

…they are not only intrinsically and directly enjoyable, but they serve a purpose beyond themselves… in forming standards for the worth of later experiences. They arouse discontent with conditions which fall below their measure; they create a demand for surroundings coming up to their own level. (Dewey).

It is in modern works such as the perks of being a wallflower and even And Tango Makes Three that children and young adults alike learn what the world is really like. It is from literature that children learn how to question the way the world is and imagine the way it should be.

When children grow older they will confront the music of N.W.A. and other gangster rappers and there only way of evaluating its content will come from literature. Through literature young people, and adults, form standards for the experiences of other people and cultures. They will be aroused with discontent at rap music which depicts violence and poverty. They will know how and why to demand change based on what they have read and learned from literature. In this way culture will be preserved and changed as new literature introduces children and adults alike to new ways of life. Democracy is served not only by a well educated population but also by a culture which is free to evolve through the free exchange of literature within the libraries of public school and throughout the nation as a whole. We may never be able to require the teaching of E.E. Cummings any more then we could require children to listen to N.W.A. Although to prevent their access to it is to deny them the body of knowledge which will allow them to rule themselves.

Work Cited

Bacon, Francis. The New Organon.

Bradly, Julia T. “Censoring the School Library: Do Students have the Right to Read?” Conn. Law Review 10 (1978): 747-771.

Dewey, John. Democracy and Education. Project Gutenberg. 26 July 2008. <>

Gard, Robert R. “Censorship and Public Understanding.” NCTE 60.2 (1971): 255-259.

Simmons, J. and Dresang, E. School Censorship in the 21st Century: A Guide for Teachers and School Library Media Specialists. Newark, Delaware: International Reading Association. (2001)

Symula, James F. “Censorship and Teacher Responsibility.” NCTE 60.2 (1971): 181-131.

[1] This list is compiled by the ALA and is available for reference at:

[2] See Appendix II and III

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