Posts tagged ‘censorship’

From the listservs: dictionary controversy

News broke early this week of an elementary school in California removing a dictionary from the classroom when a parent complained about the dictionary’s inclusion of the phrase “oral sex.” Here are the essential facts:

  • The offending dictionary was the tenth edition of Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. It was being used in fourth- and fifth-grade classrooms.
  • The parent was a classroom volunteer who discovered the word on her own and submitted a written complaint to the school.
  • The school board’s policy is to immediately remove the book and convene a committee within 30 days to determine whether or not the book was appropriate and report its decision within 15 days.

Author (and game designer!) David Lubar posted to the yalsa-bk mailing list a short piece of satire he had originally written in 1997 that bore some striking similarities [reposted with permission]:

Felicity Dour, spokesperson for PAWN (Parents Against Words that are Naughty), triumphantly announced the removal of all dictionaries from classrooms in three more states. Calling the book, “Satan’s toolkit,” Ms. Dour read several samples of the kind of unacceptable filth that can be constructed from its contents.

Lubar observed in his email, “The scary thing is that a lot of the stuff that was amusingly ridiculous back then is now so close to the truth that it won’t work as satire.”

By Tuesday, a committee had decided to offer both the original dictionary and an alternative dictionary for concerned parents and the school clarified that at no time had the dictionary been “banned” (as many news reports–The Guardian’s, for example–were saying. The school would send a letter home to parents allowing them to decide which dictionary their child should be allowed to use. What’s interesting to me is that the majority of that article (and the entirety of another) weren’t about what was happening with the dictionary, but with what was happening with the media attention the school was getting and the misinformation on the book being banned that was being spread. Furthermore, I saw a lot less–from librarians and non-librarians–about the resolution of the situation than the initial “oh no they’re banning books!” emails and tweets.

On Wednesday (the day the letters would go home to parents), Courtney Saldana, a librarian in Onario, California, shared with the listserv a summary of a radio interview she’d heard on KRQQ with a spokesperson for the Menifee School District. One part of the show she specifically mentioned was when the radio host indicated that looking up “oral sex” in a dictionary was much more appropriate for fourth- and fifth-graders than Googling it, and I think that gets to the heart of this issue. Parents want to protect their children, but isn’t the dictionary one of the safest places to find answers? And really, wouldn’t you have to know what you’re looking for to find it in the dictionary? Kids are certainly technologically literate enough to know that there are answers on the Internet, but they’re going to find a lot more objectionable material there than in a dictionary.

January 29, 2010 at 5:32 PM Leave a comment