Censorship in Three Metaphors


by Fenice B. Boyd, PhD and Nancy M. Bailey, PhD


The case of Cissy Lacks is a disturbing reminder of just how dangerous censorship can be to teachers. By most accounts, Lacks was a creative and ambitious teacher at Berkeley High School in a suburb of St. Louis for well over 20 years when she was suspended without warning from her classroom in 1995 for allowing her students to write dramatic scenes about their lives using the authentic voices that they heard daily. Lacks had been using this method for a number of years to push her reticent students to write and, particularly, to show students that both their lives and their voices are important. The resulting scenes included a good amount of profane language.

Lacks filmed the dramatic scenes so that, as she later explained, students could critique their productions and discuss how different types of language are used for different purposes in daily lives. Though Lacks had promised her students that the videos that they made would be aired only for and during the class, the tapes were confiscated by her principal, and after a public hearing in which portions of the films were shown, Lacks was fired. In 1996, a federal court claimed that Lacks' academic freedom had been violated and that the school board had discriminated against her because of race since she, a white teacher, had used with her African American students methods that were similar to those used by African American teachers to stimulate the creativity and engagement of students like hers .

She was awarded a large sum and reinstated in her job, but this decision was reversed in a court of appeals in 1998. Though Lacks was later awarded the PEN/Newman's Own Award, which is given each year to one person in the United States who has defended First Amendment rights at a personal risk, she is no longer teaching. Lacks's case is often cited as an example of the dangerous spots on the tightrope that teachers walk—creative, student-centered, innovative teachers, in particular—when they attempt to push the thinking of their students by introducing them to texts about complex social issues and diverse cultures. Such a challenge—or even the threat of one—can interrupt the budding confidence of inexperienced teachers, the support of colleagues and supervisors who abandon the challenged teacher in moments of crisis, and the intact reputations of experienced, formerly confident teachers.

Fearing the unsettling repercussions of cases like Lacks' that have been witnessed firsthand or, perhaps, only heard about, more experienced teachers are apt to teach in ways that allow them to “avoid a hassle” and less experienced teachers are very likely to make “safe” choices, especially in their selection of literature—even when they know that such decisions and choices make them less than the excellent teachers they desire to be.

May 2009 Vol. 52, No. 8

Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy: the only literacy journal published exclusively for teachers of older learners.