Bill Cotterell: Censorship doesn’t protect kids. It promotes ignorance

Unfortunately, in Florida, we take our censorship seriously, our Capitol Columnist writes.

Image by Amy from Pixabay

There was a mischievous band of documentary filmmakers in New York about 50 years ago who pulled elaborate pranks on the news media to show how easily they can be conned into believing some nutty idea is a real issue deserving immediate public attention.

One of their most famous gags was the creation of the “Society for Indecency to Naked Animals,” which advocated laws to put clothes on carriage horses, farm animals, even cats and dogs. 

SINA cranked out pamphlets and posters, did interviews on the Today show and talk radio stations, and staged rallies purportedly to protect children from seeing the naughty bits of everyday critters on the streets of New York.

What was surprising was not that the media fell for it, but that a whole lot of people sent money or sought to join SINA’s moral crusade. Fortunately, SINA soon admitted the hoax and New York’s blue-nosed prudes found something else to fret about.

Unfortunately, in Florida, nobody is pulling any pranks and we take our censorship seriously. 

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That’s bad for several reasons, but mostly because the mind of the censor never sleeps. The urge to cleanse what others see, read and hear may start with stuff everyone finds offensive but eventually — inevitably — the do-gooders go to absurd extremes.

We saw it last week when one Miami-area school moved the poem read at President Biden’s inauguration from the little-kids library to its middle-school section. You can argue the artistic merit of “The Hill We Climb” — liberals get all dewy-eyed about it, conservatives call it a sop to “woke” identity politics — but nobody can call Amanda Gorman’s work obscene. 

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Maybe it’s provocative (if you’re provoked by long didactic lectures), but it’s no threat to impressionable young minds.

What’s far more damaging to Florida’s reputation for academic freedom and intellectual inquiry is the fact that one parent — one! — objected to the poem, and school authorities caved in quickly. 

The Miami Herald reported that the mother of two students at the Bob Graham Education Center in Miami Lakes objected to a few works she felt contain critical race theory, “indirect hate messages,” gender ideology and that all-purpose bugaboo, “indoctrination.”

Elsewhere, an official inquiry was ordered because a teacher showed her class a Disney film in which one male character expresses love for another guy. No sexual activity is shown or discussed, no activity or lifestyle is advocated, there’s just a passing reference that one person has a relationship with another of the same gender — and that’s too much for the Florida Department of Education.

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By now, the whole world has heard of the Tallahassee charter school where a photo of Michelangelo’s David sculpture drew a couple of objections from parents who said they weren’t warned in advance of its use. 

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That was good for a hearty laugh at Florida and enhanced the state’s image as a cultural backwoods where a 500-year-old classic sculpture can send southern belles to their fainting couches.

Pinellas County schools removed Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” when a parent complained of a rape scene, but a committee recommended allowing the book for high schoolers. And TCPalm reported more than 80 books jerked from middle and high school shelves in Martin County. 

Some of the materials no doubt are very offensive, especially to middle-aged parents, and it would be nice if we could shield teenagers and younger kids from some of the seamier facts of life. But we can’t. With the internet, social media or just interaction among peers, they’re going to learn it all. 

That calls for parental involvement, not prohibition. It’s the parents’ job to be involved in kids’ lives, explaining what they read or hear in school about racism or different lifestyles.

Parental involvement goes for the school authorities too. 

With his “Parental Rights in Education” law and other initiatives, Gov. Ron DeSantis has tapped into a deep well of parental resentment about curriculum. If Moms for Liberty members and other pressure groups are urging legislators, school boards and principals to remove books and stifle classroom discussions — and no one speaks up on the other side — that’s what will happen.

Parents who care about their children’s learning need to tell the censors no one has a right to go through life perpetually unoffended. Sometimes students will encounter things they don’t like, or understand at first, but that’s what we call a learning opportunity.

Bill Cotterell is a retired capitol reporter for United Press International and the Tallahassee Democrat. He can be reached at bcotterell@cityandstatefl.com

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