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Why book banning is on the rise again

Megabuck libel verdicts against the news media tend to deter investigative reporting, say First Amendment specialists. In fact, studies by the American Bar Association and by newspaper associations indicate that the type of investigations that led to the uncovering of Watergate in the 1970s are now on the decline. The reason: Many media companies are playing it safe -- they don't want to risk being hauled into court and slapped with multimillion-dollar indemnities. If these huge judgments were allowed to stand on appeal, small and independent papers, radio stations, and television operations would be faced with a threat to their survival. So in many cases self-censorship is standard procedure. Of course, self-restraint motivated by a desire for good taste is not necessarily censorship and is consistent with responsible journalism. But the type of self-imposed restraint motivated by fear of lawsuits or adverse public reaction is dangerous. Its continued existence in schools, libraries, and within the publishing industry, however, does not bode well in terms of exposing people to a wide variety of ideas.

In its second annual censorship report, People for the American Way (PAW), a grass-roots lobbying group devoted to protection of individual rights, shows that book banning is widespread across the United States. And in many places it is on the rise. School boards, community groups, parents, and fundamentalist clergy lead the fight for censorship. And they get strong support from clean-up-the-books groups, including Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum, the National Pro-Family Forum, Mel and Norma Gabler's Educational Research Analysts, and Beverly LaHaye's Concerned Women for America.

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But beyond this, PAW stresses, ``one of the most insidious effects of censorship activity is the chill it casts on teachers, librarians, and school officials.''

The pro-speech-freedom lobby points out that fear of controversy and possible litigation over school and library materials is prodding education officials and libraries to play it safe and exclude anything but traditional instructional materials. For example, a Maryland librarian tore out what she felt was an offensive picture from Sports Illustrated. And a New York librarian even censored books from a display of censored materials.

Publishers -- evidently intimidated by school boards and textbook adoption committees -- are turning out sanitized versions of literary classics. (A Minnesota publisher, for instance, deleted 400 words of Shakespeare's ``Romeo and Juliet'' before parents spotted the alteration and objected.)

And authors are provided taboo lists for school texts. These include references to evolution, magic, video games, skateboarding, and censored books and materials that discuss free enterprise in a negative light. Information on controversial political figures, topics that possibly throw into question family and government authority, and fiction written by ``suspect'' authors are also played down -- or avoided completely. These practices have unleashed sharp criticism from the American Civil Liberties Union, anticensorship groups, and other First Amendment protectors. And well they should!

And now a newly formed group of authors called the National Writers Union is formally protesting what it calls ``cultural censorship.'' Its complaint is that publishers reject as ``unmarketable'' books from free-lance authors which present unorthodox or controversial ideas. ``This kind of censorship is much harder to fight because it is harder to recognize,'' explains author Bob Kuttner in an op-ed column in the Boston Globe. ``Nobody says anything about disagreeing with your views; they just don't think your book would sell,'' Mr. Kuttner writes.

Obviously clarity and good taste as well as educational and literary worth must come into play in making decisions as to what to print, what to place in libraries, and what to add to school book lists. But publishers, libraries, school officials, and newspaper editors who engage in self-censorship out of fear of adverse public reaction or even possible legal action against them risk undermining the same First Amendment speech freedoms they profess to defend. Unwittingly they could be joining those who wrongly preach the protection of society from what they see as ``dangerous'' ideas.

Curtis J. Sitomer writes the Monitor's weekly ``Justice'' column.

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