What Zinn Censorship Attempts Tell Us About the State of Intellectual Freedom

Academic Freedom, Banned and Challenged Books

By: Robert Fernandez

Last week, OIF blogger Cathy Collins wrote about a bill submitted by Arkansas State Rep. Kim Hendren to ban the work of historian Howard Zinn from Arkansas public schools. Zinn has been targeted for censorship before: Collins brings up then-Gov. Mitch Daniels’ attempt to ban Zinn from Indiana classrooms and the successful ban of his work and many others after officials in Arizona eliminated a Mexican-American studies program in public schools.

Government officials charged with overseeing public education may frame these attempts at censorship in terms of their pedagogical responsibilities, so it is important to see how these attempts differ from the appropriate use of responsible selection by professional educators and librarians.

Responsible professional selection is never personal.  Individuals should never be targeted for exclusion from curriculums or library collections. To be sure, particular authors may never appear on a syllabus or in a collection, and if that’s an effect of responsible selection policies, that’s fine, but it should never be a goal. The obvious example is Adolf Hitler. We all (I hope!) agree that Hitler is terrible, but there are plenty of reasons why his work might appear in a classroom or library: a student might need to check out Mein Kampf for a history report, or a teacher might show video of a speech by Hitler to illustrate the methods of totalitarian leaders.

Howard Zinn
Late historian and author of “A People’s History” Howard Zinn

Censorship efforts like Kim Hendren’s proposed law eliminate Zinn from the curriculum entirely, in any context. Hendren’s law adds a new subsection to Arizona educational law (6-16-149) with the chilling title of “prohibited course materials.”  Those prohibited materials include anything “authored by Howard Zinn from the years 1959 through 2010,” which is every book Zinn wrote. (His first book, LaGuardia in Congress, was published in 1959 and he died in 2010.)  The law also prohibits anything “concerning” Zinn’s work, which would include works that disagree with and attempt to dispute Zinn. No other author is prohibited in Arkansas, so Hitler could be safely added to a curriculum there, but if this law passes, Zinn could not.

A look at the previous subsection reveals how responsible legislation regarding the curriculum works. Subsection 6-16-148 covers the “Foundation of certain social studies or history courses offered in grades seven through twelve.” It outlines, in the broadest strokes, what material should be covered, like the American Revolution, the Civil War, civics, and the US government. It leaves the details (like “how much do we cover the Panic of 1837?”) to the professionals and does not identify specific authors or individuals to mandate their inclusion or prohibition.

The Mitch Daniels case is another example of deliberately targeting a particular author under the guise of responsible curriculum management. Emails uncovered in 2013 show then-Gov. Daniels practically celebrating Zinn’s death, writing “This terrible anti-American academic has finally passed away,” and complaining that Zinn’s seminal work A People’s History of the United States “is a truly execrable, anti-factual piece of disinformation that misstates American history on every page.”

Daniels demanded his staff investigate the use of Zinn by teachers in the state. “Can someone assure me that it is not in use anywhere in Indiana? If it is, how do we get rid of it before more young people are force-fed a totally false version of our history?” To be sure, concern about the accuracy of classroom materials is valid. But a proper response to that concern is to properly train and empower educators to make professional decisions about materials all across the curriculum, not to target one specific author for censorship because of what appears to be a personal animus.

One bright side is that both of these cases show how far we’ve come in terms of academic and intellectual freedom. Censorship cases like these in previous generations would have also targeted libraries and higher education, instead of being limited to public school curriculums. Respect for those concepts has grown so that both Hendren and Daniels were forced to employ the language of intellectual freedom, even if they were only giving lip service to those values.

In an interview with Reason, Hendren claimed, “I think we ought to be open to hearing both sides of the situation and then try to do what’s best for ourselves and our country. That’s what will happen with this bill.” He did not explain how unilaterally banning one side is an example of openness to both sides, but at least respect for intellectual freedom is such that he felt obligated to invoke it in some crude fashion.

When the Daniels emails came to light, he was a little more than half a year into his tenure as president of Purdue University. An outcry erupted and Daniels was forced to defend his commitment to academic freedom. He declared that “If Howard Zinn had been a tenured professor on this campus, I would have defended anything he would have wanted to write,” but one doubts the sincerity of his commitment since he claimed that there was “no implication for academic freedom” in his efforts to ban Zinn.

We still have a long way to go when it comes to intellectual freedom. It is heartening to see that it is so widely respected and is unlikely to be seriously infringed upon by one-off calls for censorship like these. But we have to be wary in case these calls for censorship by one politician here and one politician there becomes a concerted effort to chip away at the these values. We also have to expand respect for these values so that intellectual freedom applies to all educational professionals, regardless of who they teach.


Robert FernandezRobert Fernandez is a faculty librarian at Hillsborough Community College and is a member of the Florida Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee. A member of the Board of Directors of Wikimedia District of Columbia, he has been active on Wikipedia and Wikimedia projects since 2004 and is part of efforts to get more librarians to participate on Wikipedia. Find him on Twitter @wikigamaliel.

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