Anti-Censorship Groups Say New York's Department of Education Fails Free Expression Test

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This week, a number of free speech advocacy groups revealed that the New York State Education Department (NYSED), which prepares the New York English Language Arts Regents examinations, is altering literary selections in its Regents exam. In a letter sent Friday, May 31, to Dr. Richard P. Mills, commissioner of education for NYSED, the groups noted that, of 24 prose excerpts used in the exams in the last three years, 19 had been altered in ways that distorted the authors’ intent and message. Another four had words changed, paragraphs dropped, or disparate pieces of prose combined to form a single essay.

Some examples cited by the advocacy groups include: Ernesto Galarza’s memoir, Barrio Boy, where the word "skinny" is changed to "thin" and the word "fat" is changed to "heavy." In Isaac Bashevis Singer’s memoir, In My Father’s Court, all references to Judaism and Gentiles are removed. All told, any references to race, religion, ethnicity, sex, nudity, alcohol, or even mild profanity, have been removed from passages used in the exams.

In their letter to Mills, the groups, which include the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC), American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE), and the Association of American Publishers (AAP), among many others, asks NYSED to address the problem immediately "so that another class of students is not subjected to a test that is a parody of testing."

"Some of the worst acts of censorship are committed by people who are well intended," said Chris Finan, president of ABFFE. "Here, in the interest of not offending anyone, the New York Regents have stripped passages of the words that give them meaning and purpose." The groups held a press conference regarding the matter on Monday, June 3.

The literary alterations in New York’s Regents exams may never have seen the light of day if it weren’t for the efforts of Jeanne Heifetz, a Brooklyn mother whose daughter attends an alternative high school. Heifetz, a graduate in English, and an opponent to the Regents exams -- which Mills made a mandatory requirement for all New York State students in 1999 -- stumbled across what appeared to be an altered literary passage from a Regents exam.

Taking the book from the shelf, she realized her assumptions were correct. Curious, Heifetz continued to do more research and uncovered a pattern, at which point she called the NCAC for assistance, said Joan Bertin, executive director of NCAC. "We confirmed her findings," Bertin told BTW. The NCAC has posted on its Web site,, 20 examples of literary works altered on the exams.

Aside from the obvious censorship issue, the altered selections raised other issues, such as "copyright law, fair use, and publishers’ rights. A number of publishers have written to Mills [protesting the changes]," said Bertin.

Judy Platt, director of public affairs for AAP, concurred. "We took a look [at the exams] with [AAP President] Pat Schroeder, and it was realized that nobody was being asked to give permission for these alterations," she said. Platt told BTW that AAP would like the state legislature to hold a public hearing on the issue, to find out who approved the alterations and under what authority.

Roseanne DeFabio, assistant commissioner for curriculum, instruction, and assessment for NYSED, told BTW that, for all intents and purposes, the buck stops with her office -- and a frequently changing review committee of 20 people. The committee maintains a "good representation" of the varied ethnic and religious communities in New York State, she said, and holds sessions several times a year.

DeFabio admitted that excerpting and/or shortening long literary passages to fit into the confines of a Regents exam has been going on for "decades." She said that alterations to literary selections are done to satisfy NYSED’s sensitivity guidelines and to "respect the concerns of people. There’s a wide range of cultural communities [in New York State]." Also, NYSED has felt pressure from various ethnic or religious groups or person(s) regarding potentially offensive literary passages used in the Regents exams. "We invite people who find something offensive [in the Regents] to sit on our review committee," she said. As reported by the Journal News, DeFabio explained that alterations are covered by the fair use doctrine in the copyright law, since the passages were being used for testing purposes and were not published.

As for choosing passages that, according to NYSED’s guidelines, contain offensive words, rather than choosing more innocuous passages, DeFabio explained, "It was our hope in our choice of literary selections that the effect of seeing writers in the exam will result in teachers using those writers [in their classrooms]." She stressed that the exams ask the student only to critique what is contained in the passage, not in relation to the entire piece of work.

Still, in light of recent protests from writers, publishers, and free expression groups, NYSED has already conceded at least one change -- the Regents exams will now use ellipsis to indicate when a passage has been shortened. However, at present, DeFabio said there are no plans to notate when an "offensive" word has been replaced with a less offensive word. Instead, "we would consider not using that passage," she said. --David Grogan