Censorship foes: Altering painting of Washington crosses the line

Monday, October 11, 1999

Painting 'Washi...
Painting 'Washington Crossing the Delaware,' reproduced in the Harcourt General textbook, United States in Modern Times, shown after being altered by Muscagee County schools in Columbus, Ga.

In a move advocates of free expression are calling inane and outrageous, a Georgia school district has altered 2,300 copies of a fifth-grade history textbook.

School officials in Muscogee County decided before the school year began to alter the textbook's photo of Emanuel Luetze's painting, “Washington Crossing the Delaware.” The officials said they feared that ornamentation hanging from George Washington's watch and resting on the general's thigh, might be misconstrued by the students as genitalia.

To head off any student snickering, Superintendent Guy Sims ordered each textbook altered. Teacher aides spent two weeks covering the offending watch fobs with paint that matched the general's pants.

“It is utterly inappropriate … it is the ultimate in censorship,” said Judith Schaeffer, the deputy legal director of People For the American Way. “Like any act of censorship this act will draw attention to what is being censored.

“This is a watch fob (in) a historic painting of one the most important figures in American history,” she said. “He didn't cross the Delaware naked, he crossed it wearing a watch. I think Superintendent Sims ought to have to go to the blackboard and write 2,300 times 'I will not deface textbooks.'”

Some Muscogee County residents are not bothered by the school district's decision, saying that watch fobs in the painting could have been a disruptive element in the classroom. Sharon Donahue, a parent of a district student, said that while the reproductions of Leutze's painting in the old editions of United States in Modern Times, published by Harcourt General, were fine, the new edition might cause a problem. Donahue said that in the old textbook the photograph of the painting was too dark to see the watch fobs. In the new book the reproduction is brighter, which might cause some fifth-graders to misidentify the watch fobs.

Donahue, who is also the president of the local Parent Teachers Association, said that her opinion of the issue was hers as a mother, and “…the PTA does not consider this an issue, so [it hasn't] taken a stance.”

But censorship experts are outraged. “This is about the most inane thing I have ever heard of,” Marvin Rich, director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, said.

“It says more about them (Muscogee County school officials) than about the painting. What the students in this case are learning is that adults are not very thoughtful or productive.”

Neither Sims nor any other school official from Muscogee County returned calls for comment.