Lessons in Censorship by Catherine J. Ross

book jacket with photo of chin and neck with tape over the mouth were the Lessons in Censorship words appearLessons in Censorship: How Schools and Courts Subvert Students’ First Amendment Rights by Catherine J. Ross (2015)

This title is a nice play on words because of the “lessons” and then the subsequent focus on students’ right. It was funny, I had been reading this and a Facebook post about a high school student refusing to wear a bra came up as an incident, because her male teacher complained it was distracting. The photo I saw was pretty plain and I wouldn’t have known one way or the other. I have to ask myself, why is he looking at her breasts instead of her eyes in the first place. School authorities of course wanted her to change her behavior and she refused. I say RIGHT ON SISTER!

Back in the day I and many other women chose not to wear the uncomfortable undergarments. I liken them to other female clothing mandates to restrict our comfort and ability to move. Granted some women find them necessary, and certainly athletic women find them helpful. But I just have the feeling if she wore a push up bra and a v-neck blouse, somehow that would not bother him as much as the indication that *under her clothes* but not visible, she was not wearing a bra.

It reminds me of the olden days. I had a back brace I had to wear after back surgery and 3 months in a body cast when I was finally able to go back to school. On the last day of class that year, we were allowed to wear pants for the first time for some unknown reason. So I did. However, the back brace I wore stayed in place partly by garters. My pants were not particularly tight, although sitting down you could see — if you looked hard enough — that the garter shape was there. This led my world history teacher to completely humiliate me by pointing out to the class that I was wearing garters [I guess he was thinking of sexy underwear kind] and that I shouldn’t wear pants with garters “that showed.”  When I explained that they were used to help keep my back brace in place, his response was still, then you shouldn’t wear pants.  WTF? Why are you looking at my crotch mister?

This was in the COMPLETELY PATHETIC days where girls were required to wear dresses (even in -30 weather when the buses couldn’t make it up the hill). You may note the undercurrent of fury I feel to this day. Of course all the moms said just wear pants under the dress and take them off when you get to school. Well, it was fucking cold in school. The male professors with their full suits and heat sensitivity dominated the thermostat and we girls were expected to wear cotton or similar clothing with basically naked legs. It happened that I was particularly sensitive to cold and found myself barely able to hold a pen to take notes most days in the winter, but no pants for you missy. We swung from women having to be entirely covered up to virtually halfway naked and I was not pleased to be forced to sit unmoving in 68 or lower temperatures for hours on end with inadequate clothing because of bullshit dress codes for girls versus boys.

Fuck all the hem rulers and boys distracted by the sight, OMG, of a bra strap. Maybe segregation by gender (preferred or otherwise) would actually be more equal. It is well established that boys sexually harass girls, intimidate them, dominate discussions, and generally shame and ignore them except to try to get laid and then cast them off as sluts. Girls are much more engaged and open and responsive in school classes when not in mixed classes.

Another male teacher insisted that who liked the girls in dresses sit in the front row [true story] so he might get a glimpse up their skirts or just look at their legs. It would be nice if girl students would not have to deal with creeps, and maybe, just maybe, their work would not be judged lesser than male students by sexual bias [which has been endlessly documented for writers, painters, and musicians; just having John instead of Jane gets you points]. Plus it would be good to have male teachers be respectful to the women teachers as role models to see as strong in their own right, and not themselves demeaned by nasty male colleagues. [and you just know they are, women in all professions either experience “jokes” at their expense, disparagement, demeaning treatment (cleaning up the teacher’s lounge probably because the men just refuse to do it perhaps?).

I for one am sick of it all and while obvious race segregation was a really bade idea, I am starting to think there would be a lot of benefits to keep women and men apart expect for some joint ventures of short duration somehow. There must be a science fiction story out there along these lines. Does anyone know? It was established back in the day that female students did better at all women’s schools, in part because the sexist male students weren’t there to interrupt them, demean them, tease them, or sexually harass them. So then that puts us back in the separate but equal stage, and we know that is really no good either. Among other things, the comparable worth effect kicks in and women who went to sex segregated Radcliffe were never going to judged as equal to Harvard or Yale. But in co-ed classes we know they do less well because of bias. Maybe that is true of race too; I only know about women primarily because of my white privilege.

For my amusement (can’t quite say disgust because I understand historical reality) I looked up the list of names of people who had been awarded the coveted Rhodes scholarship. In part, this was because of the Thomas Frank “Listen Liberal” book on the new panacea of education as the savior of the poor. And — no surprise surprise, since it began being awarded in 1904, only about 10 women (I added casually) ever received one, and the first woman to do so was in — rats, I can’t find the one I thought I saw one woman’s name in 1952 (based on first names) but don’t see it now — so will go with Nancy Ann Min Deparle for sure was Rhodes scholar 1979. She is listed as being the “director of Health Care Reform (2009-).”

The next is 1982, Heather Wilson R-NM Congresswoman 1999-2009, followed by two failed senate runs. One in 83, one in 84; then the notable feminist Naomi Wolf in 1985; Susan Rice, 1986, currently listed as a National Security advisor (2013-). Susan Rice was one of 6 awarded that year. In 1987 there were zero out of 7 recipients. Zero of 2 in 1988. One of 3 1989. Zero un 90, 91, 92 which is notable for Cory Booker that year (Senator from New Jersey), and OMG who would have guessed: Bobby Jindahl, the mercifully former Governor from Lousiana and Presidential wanna be who tanked. An Actress in 93, and zero in 94, but restrained Yay for the formerly great Rachel Maddow in 1995. And then about 5 for the next 10 years. Although now that I arrive at the bottom seeking confirmation it is a complete list, there is a link to a “complete” list by undergraduate, and it is Wikipedia so take with grain of salt versus maybe official Rhodes site.

This is a bit of a digression, but my point is, that there were surely a WHOLE LOT MORE capable women deserving of said scholarships at least in the immediate post-WWII era, when women proved they were as good as men as engineers, and calculus, and everything else that they were allowed to try to do.

Censorship in schools serves to undermine many things, including girls who want to speak truth to power, for example. They will pay a heavy price. Rhodes scholars included a few athletes, and we all know how little chance women had in this area, in general, to excel, although there did appear to be a female name of a swimmer from India (but I find that hard to believe and am too lazy to pursue).

This book covers an astounding array of censorship issues, some of which I had never thought of as a censorship issue at all, but as she describes them, I can see that point of view.

My one strong high school memory of censorship was during Vietnam, when we protesters wore black armbands to show our anti-war beliefs and got in trouble for it. A lawsuit went to the Supreme Court on students rights and free speech and we were permitted to wear them without censure at some point. I also remember a list going around that showed all the ways that we as high school students had our constitutional liberties suspended and the punch line was that the list was from some Hitler/Nazi regulations for their schools.  But everything is even more complicated today.

This book does an excellent job of detailing all kinds of  ways censorship creeps in, and before you know it, martial law! (ha ha) First you have the religious nut parents wanting to ban books like Tom Sawyer, then uproar over the “I have three mommies” or similar. The newest trend is transgender for children and that’s causing outrage because the Xtians don’t want any sexual knowledge to actually enter a child’s awareness. It’s dirty and filthy and will put you in hell, unless you wait to have sex when someone puts a ring on it (preferably of the opposite gender). Then women are expected to breed for Christ without ever knowing alternatives. And too much tax money is actually spent supporting religious educational institutions despite separation of church and state rules.

So then in school, wearing a cross becomes a problem because of religious/pubic funded divide. But things have gotten a little to wound up these days. As long as a kid with a cross around the neck isn’t proselyting, hey it’s just another necklace. We do need to worry more today about HATE SPEECH the most I think because that is where the unambiguous line can to easily be crossed to unacceptable. She has extensive discussion about this and other aspects, like bullying via nasty hateful T-shirt slogans.

Unfortunately I started writing this while reading the book and did not write as I went and then had to turn back the book to Interlibrary Loan. If I had written this while it was still much fresher in my mind, I would be able to quote much more details and variations on how complex the issue has become. It quite surprised me since I am kind of a “if it is hurting anyone, then who cares” person. Obviously explicit sexual denigration would offend me, and perhaps make me feel threatened. Certainly anything that threatened or advocated killing x, y, or z just because by some ammosexuals would completely be unacceptable (although, in some ways, I wonder if it isn’t helpful to know who the enemy is rather than have them walking around like a decent human being only to be slipped a drug in a drink and raped?

I think this a good  book for anyone in high school or college that wants to know their rights, and read a more complex discussion of how various rights intersect and what is the preferred outcome. Lots of detail, so it takes some time. but really comprehensive. The bottom line, unfortunately does seem to be that you are likely to lose your constitutional rights in a school situation, and of course it takes money and determination to fight, and eve if you were to win, the same thing will likely happen again the next year with just enough differences that the administration will decide your victory doesn’t apply. But more likely, I expect you will lose, and most people I know who might be in this circumstance literally do not have the money or time to pursue an abstract freedom of speech case against a public school system. Among other things, there will be a lot of angry parents for neighbors that won’t want their tax dollars to have to be spent defending the school when the money can be used for so much more.  Is it really worth it to try to get a sexually explicit poem in the student newspaper? Art was my area, but really, been there done that in the sixties so other than simply producing crude shock value art hoping it will be censored is a waste of time and effort for 15 minutes of fame. In conclusion, I guess I would say that there is probably general consensus on what is acceptable and what merits censorship in a school environment, but it is a lot more variable than I would have guessed. I’d know it if I saw something that should be censored though! (to paraphrase the famous Supreme Court Judge on porn and obscene materials). I am pretty sure I would have a pretty liberal concept because I will never forget or forgive the bastard Comstock for declaring birth control information obscene and not allowed to legally be sent through the mail. This relates back to school because of the kerfuffle of the bible thumpers who don’t want accurate and explicit sex education. Or art or writing or books featuring actual sexual activity. Really, everybody does it. WTF is their problem?


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