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May 09, 1994

Given our high-tech sensory-assault civilization--with its graphic television, violent movies and explicit video games--it may seem almost anachronistic to censor the written word.

Yet, as one eloquent author so wisely noted many generations ago, words are "the gateway to a forbidden and enchanting land." And, there are always people afraid of what they will find beyond the gateway.

The author who wrote those words was Richard Wright, whose landmark "Black Boy" has repeatedly been targeted by the would-be censors in the almost 60 years since it was first published.

Most recently, at Fillmore High School in Ventura County, some parents objected to a painful account of Wright killing a kitten to challenge his father. In today's Comment, the author's daughter--Julia Wright--addresses the concerns of her father's critics.

Censorship, of course, is not new. "There has always been an attempt to censor the ideas and information available going back to recorded history," says Judith Krug, director of the American Library Assn.'s Office of Intellectual Freedom in Chicago. "It has never abated."

In fact, the Marina del Rey-based political action group People for the American Way documented 347 censorship attempts throughout the country for the 1992-93 school year. California had the most, with 29.

"These incidents involve books, plays, productions, self-esteem programs, drug prevention programs, environmental curricula," says Jean Hesburg, California director for People for the American Way. "The censor succeeded 41% of the time," Hesburg says.

There are, of course, the defenders of censorship, who say they are not so much trying to limit what is available to the public as to ensure that what the public is reading reflects "family values."

"The biggest book banners are the library community that chooses the books," says Beverly Sheldon, director of research for the Traditional Values Coalition. "They choose some books but not others. Everyone makes choices. We also have our criteria," she says.

Mel Gabler of Educational Research Analysis Inc., in Longview, Tex., admits that his group, which scours textbooks for objectionable material, is often referred to as "the No. 1 censor in the nation."

The group has, for example, criticized textbooks for making "promiscuous kids" role models, for not emphasizing that abstinence is the most effective way to prevent the spread of the AIDS virus and for not presenting the benefits of the free enterprise system.

"The books cover free enterprise but then they throw in all the things they find wrong with the free-market system," Gabler says. "Instead, they find all kinds of ways to bring in the benefits of government intervention when everyone knows how overloaded our bureaucracy is."

The fighting over school curricula is worrisome to some.

"It seems to me that there is a very vocal minority that is seeking to impose their beliefs on public school education," Hesburg says. "These groups are trying to change the face of public education."

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