Part of a continuing weekly series on Alaska history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage or Alaska history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.
Did you know that a dictionary was banned in Anchorage? Every September, every annual banned books week, it comes up again. Every year, the reading community — authors, librarians, teachers, publishers, booksellers and consumers — come together to discuss ongoing censorship issues and the history of banned books. And the extraordinary decision to ban a dictionary, of all things, in Anchorage is often included in the dialogue. The details are often wrong, and the story is slightly more complicated than how it is usually presented, but the core of the narrative is true. A dictionary really was banned in Anchorage.
In the early 1970s, a group of concerned Anchorage parents led by Marroyce Hall formed a conservative school watchdog organization called the People for Better Education. Their first claim to fame came in 1974 when the group issued an unasked-for report on unruly behavior in local schools. The report cited rampant disciplinary problems, including thrown snowballs, “pop can hockey,” “general pushing and shoving,” and “displays of affection, such as passionate embraces on school grounds.” Given the existence of such unbelievably wicked behavior, the organization demanded schools add a roving security force.
In 1976, the group emerged with a new issue. They discovered a vulgar book present in many area elementary school libraries, the American Heritage Dictionary. The People for Better Education meticulously combed through every entry in the dictionary, a process one member described as “like digging (in) garbage.” When their labors were completed, they had identified 45 objectionable slang definitions.
Many of the offending words were included for their alternative meanings, including ass, ball, bed, knocker, nut, and tail. Per the dictionary, a “ball” can be “any of various rounded movable objects used in sports and games” or refer to “the testicles.” Similarly, “bed” might be a noun or a verb, a piece of furniture, or “to have sexual intercourse with.” The organization also disliked several idioms, including “shack up,” defined as “to live in sexual intimacy with another person, especially for a short duration.”
The Anchorage School Board, to their credit, took the complaint seriously. They empowered a committee of four parents and four staff members to review the text, which concluded that the dictionary should remain available to students. Undeterred, Hall, accompanied by Eileen Kramer, made a presentation to the school board on June 28, 1976, again demanding the removal of the dictionary.
To the surprise of board president Sue Linford, the board voted 4-3 to remove the dictionary. Millet Keller, Tom Kelly, Darlene Chapman, and Vince Casey voted in favor of the ban. Keller, who authored the motion to remove the dictionary, told the Anchorage Daily Times that such “vulgar, slang words” were “better left in the gutter.” Linford, Heather Flynn, and Carolyn Wohlforth voted against the ban. Said Linford, “I’m really at a loss to explain it ... This smacks of things I don’t think we want to encounter.”
The next day, the Anchorage Assembly voted unanimously to send a letter to the school board sharply rebuking their actions, warning that the dictionary ban would “stimulate further censorship pressures.” The letter further stated, “the overriding concern is preservation of individual and academic freedoms. We earnestly request that you reconsider your action without delay.” Several Assembly members also went on the record with more personal comments. Chairman Dave Rose described the ban as “absolutely ludicrous.” Lidia Selkregg declared, “I’m shocked at the board’s action. A dictionary is a most sacred document.” Fred Chiei said, “Now I suppose they’d like to go for the Bible. Lots of good words with dirty meanings there.”
Most of the public comments on the ban criticized the action. School board candidate Pam Siegfried said, “I do not want to have my kid go to a library which has been picked clean by concerned parents. Once somebody starts censoring, where does it stop?” The Anchorage Daily News editorialized, “We can’t imagine any action by a board of education which could go against the American grain more than censoring research tools.” As one resident wrote in a letter to the Daily News, “You don’t stop the use of ‘vulgar’ language by removing one book which contains the definition of four or five slang words but rather by parental guidance and by making it clear to your children that such language is not acceptable to you.”
Around the same time, several members of Anchorage’s Mexican American community, including the Chicano Interservice Association, complained that three books on Mexico in local elementary libraries presented stereotyped images of Mexico. The school board ordered the removal of these books at the same meeting when they banned the American Heritage Dictionary. One of these books, “All Sorts of Things” by Theodore Clymer, includes a story of a Mexican town where everyone is lazy, unintelligent, wears tattered sombreros, and eats tortillas exclusively. A month later, the school board rescinded their ban on two of these books on Mexico, though not on “All Sorts of Things.”
The American Heritage Dictionary remained forbidden. As might have been reasonably expected, the ban increased interest in the book and the supposedly objectionable words, underpinning the ludicrous nature of such censorship. The downtown Book Cache (remember when there were multiple Book Caches in town?) prominently displayed a rack full of copies. A spokesperson noted the store “has gotten more requests and comments” since the ban. She added, “I think people are just curious.”
As Katherine Chamberlain of the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom stated in 2010, “Condemning the American Heritage Dictionary for its ‘objectionable language’ in effect condemns the English language itself.” The language existed, whether one considered it vulgar or not. Moreover, children then certainly already knew far more profane words than tame terms like “balls” or “tail.”
In addition, Anchorage of the 1970s was a more openly risqué city than it is today. Prostitutes walked the streets, and there were far more strip clubs, XXX theaters, and adult bookstores. The abundant massage parlors and escort services openly marketed their illicit services, establishments like the Touch N Glow, Foxy Lady, and Sensuous Lady. The People for Better Education might as well have expanded their efforts to include banning the phone book since it included sections for such businesses. The newspapers ran advertisements for XXX features, resulting in movie listing pages that included both Linda Lovelace’s “Deep Throat II” and Disney’s “Bambi.”
The People for Better Education were less successful with their future demands, which included the requested removals of several other books and films. In 1977, they notably challenged the showing of the film “The Lottery” in classes. The film is based on the classic short story by Shirley Jackson, wherein town’s people ritually kill a fellow resident every year solely because it is tradition.
The organization was perhaps more successful as an inspiration for similar censorship movements elsewhere. Amid a general rise in school district book bans across the country, the American Heritage Dictionary was subsequently banned in Cedar Lake, Indiana; Eldon, Missouri; Folsom, California; and Churchill County, Nevada in 1976, 1977, 1982, and 1992, respectively.
Having protected children from selected dictionaries, the Anchorage school board next targeted LGBT teachers. Beginning in the summer of 1977, the board tried to suspend and then fire Government Hill Elementary teacher Michele Lish for the perceived sin of being a lesbian. While Lish had a stellar reputation as an educator, the board might have found a way to dismiss her quickly if they had been willing to endure the due process for such a removal. However, the board had no interest in any public accounting and refused to grant Lish a hearing. By September, the courts had twice blocked the suspension and dismissal given the lack of said hearing. Still, the school board dragged the conflict out until January 1978, when Lish accepted a non-teaching position in the district. Coincidentally, that same month, the Copper River School District board passed a resolution banning LGBT employees.
While the dictionary ban does not seem to have ever been officially lifted, the removal was eventually forgotten or ignored. Today, the Anchorage School District library catalog lists several American Heritage Dictionary editions available throughout the district.
The way history works is that the same scenarios tend to repeat, different in the specifics but consistent at their core. Schools should be open, welcoming institutions. Instead, far too many people far too often expend their energies trying to restrict access to literature, knowledge, and access.
Babb, Jim. “Assembly Raps Dictionary Ban.” Anchorage Daily News, July 1, 1976, 1.
“Board Ousts ‘Vulgar Dictionary.’” Anchorage Times, June 29, 1976, 1, 2.
“Books on Mexico Restored.” Anchorage Daily News, August 11, 1976, 2.
Chamberlain, Katherine. “Spotlight on Censorship—The American Heritage Dictionary.” Intellectual Freedom Blog, Office of Intellectual Freedom, American Library Association, September 28, 2010.
Doherty, Nancy. “Dictionary Falls Over Dirty Words.” Anchorage Daily News, June 30, 1976, 1, 2.
Hunter, Don. “Dictionary Ban Draws Criticism of Assembly.” Anchorage Times, July 2, 1976, 1, 2.
“National News.” Lesbian Tide, March/April 1978, 18.
“Our Views: For Shame.” Anchorage Daily News, July 2, 1976, 4.
“Siegfried Supports Practical Education.” Anchorage Times, October 2, 1976, 6.
“The Scene.” Anchorage Daily News, July 17, 1976, 10.
“Teacher Kept Out of Classroom.” Anchorage Daily News, January 6, 1978, 1.
Tousignant, Adele. Letter to the editor. “What’s Vulgar?” Anchorage Daily News, July 8, 1976, 4.
Warren, Elaine. “Group Calls for School Reforms.” Anchorage Daily News, August 14, 1974, 2.