Who Speaks for the Kids in Your School When the Censor Comes Calling?
by Dianne Oberg
Freedom of expression rights are essential to education in a free and democratic society. These are the rights of everyone in the school community, including students. Teacher-librarians are charged with ensuring that those rights are acknowledged and respected.
Freedom of expression is one of the fundamental freedoms guaranteed to everyone in Canada by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Part I, Section 2, of the 1982 Constitution Act. Since the K–12 education system in Canada is governed by provincial and territorial legislatures, all laws, policies and practices that affect education must be consistent with the Charter. Schools must protect the Charter rights and freedoms of their students and staff or risk being subject to Charter challenges. [See, for example, Chamberlain v. Surrey School District No. 36 (2002).]
Teacher-librarians, by virtue of their dual professional qualifications in teaching and librarianship and their dual codes of ethics, play the role of standard-bearers for freedom of expression rights within the school community. The code of ethics of librarianship addresses two ethical commitments to freedom of expression rights and to freedom of information rights that are not generally specified in the code of ethics of the teaching profession.
All librarians, including teacher-librarians, are required to
- support and implement the principles and practices embodied in the Canadian Federation of Library Associations’ Statement on Intellectual Freedom and Libraries; and
- facilitate access to any or all sources of information that may assist library users. [See the Canadian Library Association’s Code of Ethics (1976) and the Canadian Federation of Library Associations’ Code of Ethics (2018).]
At the international level, freedom of expression rights are defined in two United Nations documents: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) of 1948 and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989). Canada was a signatory to the UDHR and ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1990. Article 19 of the UDHR states:
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
Article 13 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child states:
1. The child shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of the child’s choice.
2. The exercise of this right may be subject to certain restrictions, but these shall only be such as are provided by law and are necessary: (a) For respect of the rights or reputations of others; or (b) For the protection of national security or of public order (ordre public), or of public health or morals.
The international School Library Guidelines explain that a school library supports the development of responsible citizenship through activities that address its two main purposes: “the moral purpose of school libraries (i.e., making a difference in the lives of young people) and … the educational purpose of school libraries (i.e., improving teaching and learning for all). Facilities, collections, staff and technology are only means to that end.” (See page 13.)
Freedom of expression rights include a wide range of interlocking rights such as freedom to read, freedom to speak, freedom of the press, freedom to know, intellectual freedom and social responsibility, all of which are foundational to a democratic society and schooling in a democratic society.
To support freedom of expression rights, teacher-librarians work with teachers and other school staff to ensure that these rights are enshrined in school policies including the school library’s collection management policy (often referred to as the school library selection policy).
Freedom of expression rights apply to the communicator, whatever the means of communication, but they also apply to the receiver. If one person is prevented from expressing his or her opinion, the rights of the persons who could have heard or read or seen the opinion are also affected.
Freedom of Expression Rights in School Policy
The school library’s collection management policy is a critical tool for protecting the freedom of expression rights of students and staff. This policy document, based on the mission and goals of the school, defines the purposes of the library’s collection and outlines the responsibilities for collection management decisions. The collection management policy needs to be formally approved by school authorities and reviewed and revised regularly. Input from the school’s wider community is important.
The policy should include clear guidelines for the reconsideration of materials challenged by staff, parents or community members. The teacher-librarian and other school staff must be aware of the policy and procedures for responding to challenges to library or classroom materials. When the teacher-librarian and other school staff lack such awareness, materials can be removed or banned without the approved policy and procedure being followed.
The challenge of materials should be viewed as an important and valuable part of the democratic and educational process. In Canada, when school or district guidelines for the reconsideration of controversial materials are followed, many challenged materials are retained. When censorship cases are considered by the courts, the outcome is most often retention of the materials.
For example, when the Supreme Court of Canada ruled on Chamberlain v. Surrey School District No. 36 in 2002, the court found that the school trustees had acted unreasonably when they banned books depicting same-sex couples. “The [Supreme] Court, however, did not consider the freedom of expression rights of students in reaching their decision,” wrote Deavon Peavoy in Banning Books, Burning Bridges in 2004. “Despite this recent opportunity to comment on a student’s right to information, Canadian jurisprudence remains silent on the issue of student freedom of expression rights in the banning of books from schools.”
To my knowledge, no school or district guidelines for reconsideration of materials include a requirement for ensuring that students’ freedom of expression rights be considered.
Freedom of Expression Rights for Students
“The freedom of expression rights of students within the educational system have remained virtually unexplored in Canadian legal jurisprudence,” Peavoy states on page 126 in “Banning Books, Burning Bridges.” She proposes five benefits (on pages 145–54) that would be gained from recognizing students’ interests in freedom of expression rights, law and educational decision-making practices.
- Freedom of expression rights further the purpose of education. A major goal of education in a democratic and pluralistic society is providing the foundations of effective citizenship. Achieving this goal requires that students explore a range of ideas and points of view.
- Freedom of expression rights prevent indoctrination. Education is compulsory, and to some degree students are a captive audience. Hearing dissenting voices and learning that not all people agree are important parts of developing the strategies needed for independent thinking.
- Freedom of expression rights are useful when competing interests negotiate. Section 1 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms acknowledges that rights are not absolute, but they can be limited only to the degree that is justifiable within a free and democratic society. Section 1 can be used as a decision-making tool for reconciling individual and community rights. When they recognize students’ freedom of expression rights, the authorities who decide school policy and practices must consider whether the policy decision promotes or unduly limits the Charter rights of students.
- Freedom of expression is important to the individual. Freedom of expression rights support students’ access to ideas that contribute to their personal growth and fulfillment (rather than protect students from “harmful” ideas). Article 29 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child states that education should develop “the child’s personality, talents and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential.”
- Freedom of expression enhances the participatory role of children. Recognition of the freedom of expression rights of students puts their interests at the centre of educational decision-making processes when school authorities select materials for the classroom and the school library.
A major goal of education in Canada is to develop students who are informed, self-directed, independent and discriminating thinkers, ready to participate as citizens in a democratic pluralistic society. Student freedom of expression rights are essential to education in a free and democratic society. “The recognition of such rights would place the interests of the students first in pedagogical decision-making, enhance democratic functions within schools, and encourage a rights discourse to shape the classroom environment,” Peavoy states on page 125.
Teacher-librarians, because they select materials for schools, often find themselves involved in issues related to selecting and/or removing materials from the classroom or the school library. Complaints or challenges to materials often come from parents and other community members. Even more difficult to address is “silent censorship” by school staff (which might include teacher-librarians themselves) who might not purchase, might surreptitiously remove or might lock away materials that might be controversial to prevent student access. These actions narrow students’ access to ideas and information. A school’s collection management policy, including procedures for reconsideration of challenged materials, is one important tool for addressing such issues whether the materials in question are in the library or the classroom.
Recognizing students’ freedom of expression rights would mean including the interests of students who would be affected by the removal of challenged materials in the discussions and deliberations of the issue. For older students, a child-centred approach to their freedom of expression rights would mean that students’ views about matters that affect them would be elicited and seriously considered. For younger students, a “best interests of the child” approach, similar to the one invoked in Canadian courts, would ensure that their needs are considered.
One good place to start developing and enhancing an environment where the freedom of expression rights of students are considered is the review, revision and reaffirmation of the school’s collection management policy and procedures. They should be in line with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, international standards such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the international School Library Guidelines.
Dr. Dianne Oberg is professor emerita in the Faculty of Education at the University of Alberta in Edmonton.
Featured image: Oromocto High School library, Oromocto, New Brunswick. Janayna Velozo via Wikimedia Commons (licensed under CC BY 2.0)