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NCTE Position Statement

Resolution on Meeting Obscenity Challenges to Teaching Materials

1973 NCTE Annual Business Meeting in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania


On June 21, 1973, the United States Supreme Court handed down five decisions reaffirming the principle that "obscenity" is not protected by the First Amendment. Thus the 50 states may continue to prohibit the publication and sale of obscene material. The Court redefined material which can be labeled obscene, without infringing on First Amendment rights, as follows: (1) taken as a whole, it appeals to prurient interest in sexuality, (2) it portrays in a patently offensive way sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable law, and (3) taken as a whole it does not have serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value. To be prohibited as obscene, the material must meet all three requirements. The Court rejected the requirement it had formerly laid down, namely that the work be "utterly without redeeming social value."

The Court further said that the trier of fact—which means a jury unless the defendant elects to be tried without a jury—may decide whether the material meets the above criteria by applying the contemporary standards of the community where the trial takes place, and need not—as formerly—apply a national standard.

Two features of these new rulings are of particular concern to the National Council of Teachers of English. One is the abandonment of the requirement that the material be utterly without redeeming social importance. The other is the Court's permission for the trier of fact to use local rather than national standards. These features make it much more likely that works of artistic or social merit will be outlawed.

Since the Court decision has ruled out the possibility of any national standard, judgments concerning literature will be made by laymen at the community level. The average citizen, while close to the moral and social climate of his or her community, may have little knowledge of how to evaluate a whole work of literature for its artistic merit. Imprudent judgments may lead to

  • denying students access to both their literary heritage and concepts which help them make their own decisions;
  • violating the constitutional rights of authors and readers guaranteed by the First Amendment;
  • over-editing of textbooks, including the making of trivial changes;
  • banning or altering of works of literature;
  • pressuring authorities into succumbing to ill-informed protests; and
  • curtailing public information programs concerning book selection.

The Council for at least ten years through its actions, including the publication of The Students' Right to Read, has given assistance to schools handling complaints and has encouraged them to use tolerant and sound judgment in selecting a wide range of instructional materials. As NCTE is an organization involved in the evaluation of both literature and curriculum structure, it has valuable information to help communities and teachers make informed and reasonable judgments.

As a result of the Supreme Court's ruling and in light of the history of some community attitudes toward literature and questions of obscenity, there is an increasing need for classroom teachers to have access to criteria suggested by respected authorities. Teachers should be furnished with criteria and information which will help them remain faithful to the integrity of works of literature, as well as sensitive to the pressures of community values and moral attitudes.

It is urgent to recognize that one form of censorship is the deliberate omission of materials which treat controversial issues and information concerning cultural and other minorities. Be it therefore


Resolved, that the National Council of Teachers of English affirm that all book-selection decisions be based upon soundly developed criteria and that the decisions be representative of a large segment of the community, rather than the vested interests of a few vocal members;

     that the Executive Committee of NCTE appoint an ad hoc committee charged with the responsibility of addressing itself to the questions raised by the Supreme Court decision by preparing a broadly-based series of criteria for determining the appropriateness of instructional materials. Specifically the committee shall

  • present ways to demonstrate that it is impossible even for a literary critic to judge from a single word, paragraph, or page what a whole work of literature, both morally and aesthetically, fully expresses;
  • establish various criteria and supportive information which can be used by people in different kinds of "communities," whether these communities be defined as classroom, town, city, or state;
  • design criteria to assist elementary and secondary classroom teachers as well as administrative personnel at both levels, to make wise decisions regarding selection of instructional materials, both basic and supplementary.

Furthermore, the committee shall include in the criteria procedures for selecting materials and handling complaints within the community, as well as information offering fair and full treatment of cultural groups and current social attitudes; and

     that the committee be instructed to solicit from affiliates of the Council examples of workable procedures and policy as well as descriptions of circumstances surrounding complaints about instructional material.

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