Covering Words or Images (Expurgation)

Q: My principal and I had a great discussion about what to do when a book is challenged but when I mentioned that a parent might be upset if a book contains a swear word, he asked if we could just white out the word. I told him that I would never deface a book, and I mentioned First Amendment rights and students’ access to ideas and information. This just didn’t seem like a good enough reason to me. I’m trying to come up with a better reply for his question. Any suggestions?

The official term for what your administrator was suggesting is “expurgation.” By denying access to a complete work and the ideas expressed within it, expurgation is censorship.

It is clear from your response to your administrator’s question that you have no desire to become a censor yourself. The school administrator needs to understand such an action IS censorship and is very different than, say, removing graffiti from school property.

The American Library Association (ALA) has a statement opposing the expurgation of library materials in its Library Bill of Rights. The ALA also offers an interpretation on that statement that expands on the explanation you’ve already provided.

We hope your materials selection policy has a statement upholding the principles of intellectual freedom, and even affirms the Library Bill of Rights by name. If it does either, then expurgating any library materials in any way violates the principles your policy affirms.

But beyond this, and beyond the reasons you already cited, think about the fact that, as we often say in this forum, no one can possibly know what particular book or other resource might offend someone. Would you be prepared to go through the entire book collection and begin expurgating every swear word you or someone else notices in order to be “safe”? Then what about the bathroom humor that many children find so appealing and many adults find so annoying? What about references to witchcraft and sorcery that some parents feel violate the beliefs they are teaching their children? Or what will you do about illustrations that this or that adult might find too scary for all children, not just their own, or they think might be harmful to all children in some other way? Where and how would you draw the line?

We know thinking along these lines may seem extreme, but it’s important to understand there is no such thing as a “little” censorship, and when an environment has been created that allows censorship to happen once, we believe it can and will happen again—it’s the insidious slippery slope. If one book is expurgated, a second too easily follows. It can also contribute to a pattern of thinking that leads to second-guessing every purchasing decision, increasing the odds of rejecting materials that have a perceived potential to offend regardless of their potential value to the collection and those the library serves.

Finally, in addition to expurgation equaling censorship, and in addition to the fact that you know there is no such thing as a “safe” library collection unless the library shelves are empty and the library doors are locked, consider this. In an attempt to avoid offending some parents by expurgating swear words, you run a very real risk of offending other parents and adults who value the First Amendment rights of their own children and all other current and future users of the materials in the school library.

You are a tremendous asset to your administrator and the school—-whether or not he realizes it. You are speaking up for the principles that keep censorship at bay, that uphold your policy, and that enable you to provide the best possible resources–in their entirety–to the students and staff.

November 2007