(This story was originally written and recorded for Retrocast #21, released on October 23, 2023.)
In light of the recent headlines about book bans, I’ve playfully quipped that I would love for one of my books to be banned. It’s not that there’s anything objectionable in any of the three volumes I’ve written, it’s because banned books tend to see a surge in sales.
However, there’s an alternative approach. You could simply take a pair of scissors and cut the offensive portions of a book out. That’s exactly what Vice-Principal Edward R. Fisco did at Dumont High School in Dumont, New Jersey back in 1977.
The book in question was titled “Masculinity and Femininity,” and was published by the Houghton-Mifflin Co. The school had purchased fifty copies of the soft-covered book for use in the school’s family living class. This course, encompassing subjects like reproduction, birth control, family planning, and venereal disease, was mandatory for all 300 senior students at the school. The senior class was divided into quarters, with one-quarter taking the course every ten weeks, while the rest continued with their gym classes.
Fisco claimed that during the previous school year, he had found several defaced copies of the book. Furthermore, a student had torn an image from a reference copy of the book, scribbled lewd remarks on it, and then pasted it to a locker.
His solution was simple: he cut the six images that he deemed offensive from all of the books. Each was then marked with his initials “E.R.F.” and the year 1977. While the pictures were gone, Fisco did leave the captions intact. For example, one read, “Scrubbed, gowned, and gloved, the obstetrician guides the baby’s head out of its mother. One of the arms has already emerged.”
It wouldn’t be until October 30, 1978, that school Superintendent David Dervitz would learn of what Fisco had done. He told a reporter, “The philosophy of the board [of education] is if you have to do all that, you should not be using the book at all.” He added, “It could be that these are not the books that should have been used in the course. If he did not feel that the books were applicable at this particular level, they should not have been purchased in the first place.”
Fisco claimed that he edited out the questionable images because, “They were not the kind of pictures I wanted high school students to look at. There were snapshots of male and female organs which I felt were too explicit. We have slides with the same thing, but the slides are locked up.”
In addition, he expressed fear that the older students would take the books home and show the pictures to their younger sisters and brothers. “Perhaps if I did not have two little girls at home, I would not have [done it]. If it was a mistake, it was human error, but it was done from an emotional standpoint.”
An editorial in the November 7 edition of the Bergen’s Record newspaper said, in part, “Mr. Fisco’s censorship shows him to be pathetically out of touch with his students.” It continues, “We sympathize with the school board members who must now try to resolve this truly incredible episode. We would ask them, before they decide on a course of action, to consider two questions: What would they do if the person who cut the pictures out of textbooks had been a student, rather than an administrator? How would they act if the excised material were not pictures of the human anatomy, but the second amendment to the Constitution—the right to bear arms—scissored out of a history text by a teacher who was personally committed to gun-control laws?”
The whole issue would be resolved at the November 9th meeting of the board of education. First, it was learned that Fisco had only taken his scissors to 28 of the books, not the 50 as originally thought. He then told the board that he was willing to pay for new copies of the book, an offer that the board accepted. The cost for each book was $3.90 each, which would set Fisco back for a total of $109.20. (Approximately $500 adjusted for inflation.)
Board President John J. Eskel then stated, “For the board, the issue is closed.”
If you are curious about the book and the images that Fisco cut out, there is a copy that can be viewed online for free on the Internet Archive website at archive.org. Again, the title was “Masculinity and Femininity,” by Miller, Rosenberg, and Stackowski, with a copyright date of 1971.
My overall impression of the book was that it was quite tame by today’s standards. I mean, just think about the images that kids have ready access today on their phones. I had a tough time identifying the six images that Fisco cut out. Three were definitely of male and female genitalia, but they were actually detailed drawings, not photos. The image depicting a newborn’s birth, which I had previously read the caption for, turned out to be a genuine photograph but offered little more than a view of the baby’s head cradled by the doctor’s hands.