Steve Nelson is a retired educator who writes often against the regime of test-and-punish. Steve was headmaster of the progressive Calhoun School in Manhattan, and he practiced what he preaches. For a time, he was a member of the board of the Network for Public Education, and I appreciated his wise counsel.

In this essay on his blog, he argues against censorship. In general, I agree with him. I wrote a book about the open, blatant censorship of textbooks, tests, and literary works used in schools, called The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn. The book described in detail the protocols that publishers use to exclude words, phrases, and illustrations that anyone might object to. Their exclusions are described in what are called “bias and sensitivity guidelines.” The book contains a list of nearly 1,000 words, phrases, etc. that are never to be mentioned because someone finds them offensive.

I came out strongly against censorship of literary works and textbooks and tests.

But, but, but…as readers of this blog are aware, I practice censorship on this blog. I delete comments that insult me. I treat the blog as my living room. We are here to discuss topics of my choosing. If one of my guests calls me a filthy whore or a lying bitch, I don’t post their comments. Believe me, some have called me even worse epithets, too vile to mention.

I don’t post demonstrably false conspiracy theories. For example, I received a video about the Sandy Hook massacre claiming to prove that it was a hoax, that no one died there, that it was staged by professional “crisis actors.” I refused to post it. I deleted it. I censored it. The principal of the Sandy Hook Elementary School followed my blog and my Twitter account. She died. So did five other staff members and 20 children, ages 5 and 6. The young man who did it killed his mother and himself. The perpetrator of this hoax, Alex Jones, has been ordered to pay over $1 billion to families in Newtown, Connecticut, who have been threatened and harmed because of his lies. Why should I repeat his lies?

I will not post racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, misogynist, xenophobic hate speech. But I oppose bowdlerizing books in which such language appears.

I oppose censoring Huckleberry Finn, the books Dr. Seuss published during World War 2, the books of Roald Dahl, the mural hanging in a San Francisco high school to which some students objected despite its artistic merit.

I support censorship of medical misinformation about COVID or other potentially fatal diseases. I support blocking quacks who advise sick people to drink bleach or swallow veterinary medicine. I read a blog written by a doctor titled “Misinformation Kills,” and I refuse to be complicit in spreading misinformation that kills. Elon Musk, on the other hand, a zillion times more powerful than me, has restored the COVID quacks, as well as Nazis and election deniers.

More controversially, I have blocked comments on the blog defending Putin’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine and his brutal destruction of that sovereign nation. To me, defending Putin is no different from defending Hitler. I know that the word “unprovoked” will bring in more comments objecting that Putin was provoked to send 200,000-300,000 troops into a sovereign nation because Ukraine belonged to Russia long ago, or NATO was encircling Russia, or the Ukrainians are Nazis, or whatever the excuse of the day is. Sorry, I feel strongly about supporting a nation struggling for its very existence and opposing a vicious tyrant.

So there you have it, Steve. I oppose censorship of art and literature. But I practice censorship here because there are some forms of speech that I do not tolerate. I look forward to hearing from you.

Steve Nelson wrote:

The complex issues of sensitivity, censorship, expression, art and history splashed down on the front page of the New York Times this week in a pair of articles.

One piece examined the legal case brought by Quebec artist Sam Kerson, formerly of Vermont.

In 1993, Kerson installed two murals titled “Vermont, The Underground Railroad” and “Vermont and the Fugitive Slave” at Vermont Law and Graduate School (VLGS) in South Royalton. I’ve written of this before as I have a special interest. I was an administrator at VLGS at the time and played an instrumental role in facilitating the project. After recent complaints from students, describing the depiction of slaves as crude caricatures, VLGS covered the murals. Kerson sued, VLGS prevailed, Kerson appealed, and the appeal was heard in the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York City on January 27th. The Times article describes the somewhat arcane law that Kerson cites in the appeal to protect his creation.

The second article reported the rewrites of several works by Roald Dahl. The Times reports that the rewrites were “. . . an effort to make them less offensive and more inclusive, according to a representative from the author’s estate.” Changes included such things as removing “fat” and using more inclusive terms for race, gender and parenting.

It is a humorous coincidence that the Puffin Foundation supported the murals, and Puffin Books sanitized the novels. The Puffins are not related, although Wikipedia says this about the Foundation. “The Puffin Foundation, with more than $14 million in assets split between two independent entities, was seeded with the fortune Perry Rosenstein made in the Allen screw business. He got into the fasteners industry as a salesman. As he made the rounds on his accounts, he found several buyers who wanted diversity in Allen screws.”

All these years later, “diversity” and “screwing” are flashpoints!

A critical distinction: Sam Kerson is a passionate anti-racist activist, and no person questions his motives, which were to remind us of both cruelty and heroism. Roald Dahl, by contrast, was known as a nasty anti-semite and anti-feminist.

Particularly in these contentious times, it is important to adhere to principles, whether one prefers the outcome or not. One ought not fiercely defend only the rights or expression that coincide with personal values or beliefs. We can neither understand nor learn from the past if we are constantly tinkering with its representation. That doesn’t mean that any literary or artistic product has total impunity. It is our right – our obligation – to interpret, to critique and to engage in debate. Without discomfort, growth is stunted.

In the Dahl instance, there seems little nuance. Editing books to cleanse them of discomfort is indefensible. Dahl’s language tells us about the era, the context, and the author’s implicit and explicit biases. We need all of it to understand the books and the man. No one is forced to read them. And, of course, any good teacher can use student discomfort to provide valuable lessons on social injustice, misogyny, bigotry and more. Even Puffin Books could reprint with a publisher’s note, citing the examples of language they find offensive and stimulating debate as to why.

I intend no false equivalence, but the outcry over actions like the Florida erasure of the truth of racial injustice rings hollow if rewriting Dahl’s books is easily accepted.

As to VLGS murals, it is important to recognize that they are not like framed paintings, where displays are often rotated and there is no presumption of permanence. The nature of a mural is to be fixed and ongoing. They are Kerson’s creations. The Times writes, “The case turns on language in the federal law that says artists can seek to prevent modification of their work if the change would harm their honor or reputation.’” Kerson claims, as seems self-evident, that removal or covering is a “modification,” and that his honor and reputation are at stake.

I also have sympathy for students and others who find the murals difficult. But like Dahl’s language, the murals can be a topic for critical analysis and rich debate. As a matter of principle, Kerson’s impeccable bona fides are not dispositive. But as a matter of context, his intent does matter.

I am in no position to obligate Kerson to anything, but my guess is that he might welcome a chance to go to VLGS and engage in discussion. Perhaps they could persuade his good heart to their viewpoint. Or perhaps not. But hiding or removing the murals just capitulates to a dangerous trend toward censoring discomfort.

A law school should be reluctant to be part of that trend, however emotionally powerful the concerns may be.

(This post first appeared in the 2/26 Valley News in New England)