Florida School District Removes John Green’s “Paper Towns” From Summer Reading List (Update: Victory!)

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Update 7/16: Paper Towns has reappeared on the latest version of the John Long Middle School summer reading list for 8th grade students!

NCAC’s Kids’ Right to Read Project has expressed concerns over the removal of John Green’s award-winning novel Paper Towns, from the 8th grade summer reading list at John Long Middle School in Pasco County (FL).

A parent who objected to sexual content and references in the book expressed her concerns in an email to a member of the school board, who in turn forwarded the message to school officials on Friday, June 20. By the following Monday, the book had been removed from the reading list, even though the objecting parent did not request the book’s removal, but merely complained because she had not been alerted to its content.

Update: July 1

Kurt Browning, Pasco County Superintendent of Schools responds to statements about the removal of Paper Towns:

Please see the following response to the editorial in the Tampa Bay Times regarding the removal of Paper Towns by John Green from the 8th Grade Summer Reading List.

The editorial regarding the recent removal of John Green’s Paper Towns contained some inaccurate information that leads the reader to believe that this book was banned from Pasco County schools. That is not the case. Rather, the title was simply eliminated from a teacher’s summer reading list of possible books for students to read over the summer. The parent’s email brought the inclusion of this book to the attention of the Office for Teaching and Learning. It was quickly recognized that this title was not recommended by authoritative reviewing sources for the age group targeted for that reading list, so the title was removed from the list while the district determined whether the full review process that is outlined in Board policy should be put into action. At no time was any copy of the book removed from school media centers, nor was it “banned” as suggested by the title of the editorial. We currently have this book available in many of our high schools and some of our middle schools.

In addition, the Office for Teaching and Learning will be recommending some changes to procedures regarding the selection of instructional materials that will ensure that students and parents have more information regarding controversial topics that may be included in reading lists or other instructional activities.

Kurt S. Browning
Pasco County Superintendent of Schools

NCAC Executive Director Joan Bertin replies:

Dear Superintendent Browning,

Thank you for your prompt response.

The procedures outlined in Section 2520 of the school board policies, “Selection of Instructional Materials and Equipment,” referenced in our previous letter, apply “[w]hen a citizen disagrees with the materials being used in the instructional program of the District.” The summer reading assignment is surely part of the “instructional program.” As a result, we submit that the procedures outlined in that section are required before a book can be removed from the reading list in response to a complaint about its content.

We also consider it irrelevant that the book is still available from the library or bookstore. A book does not have to be censored everywhere to be censored somewhere. Any action by school officials to restrict access to a book because some object to its ideas or content offends fundamental First Amendment principles:

[The Bill of Rights] protects the citizen against the State itself and all of its creatures — Boards of Education not excepted. These have, of course, important, delicate, and highly discretionary functions, but none that they may not perform within the limits of the Bill of Rights. That they are educating the young for citizenship is reason for scrupulous protection of Constitutional freedoms of the individual, if we are not to strangle the free mind at its source and teach youth to discount important principles of our government as mere platitudes….

The very purpose of a Bill of Rights was to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities and officials and to establish them as legal principles to be applied by the courts. One’s right to life, liberty, and property, to free speech, a free press, freedom of worship and assembly, and other fundamental rights may not be submitted to vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections.

West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette (1943).

Your statement that the book was removed only because “this title was not recommended by authoritative reviewing sources for the age group targeted for that reading list” might be persuasive if the decision had not been made in response to a complaint brought by one parent, and if it had not occurred in private over a single weekend. The review process promotes government accountability and insures that government decisions are based on sound educational grounds, and that they are not the product of personal opinion and preferences or the desire to avoid controversy. Failure to follow established procedures is therefore more than a technical defect: it undermines confidence that a decision has been reached after informed consideration of the educational value of the book in question.

Moreover, it is difficult to reconcile the decision to remove Paper Towns with the fact that the summer reading list for both 7th and 8th grades contains other coming-of-age novels exploring serious and challenging themes. The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros addresses, among other things, sexual awakening, sexual assault, poverty, and discrimination; death is a prominent theme in Red Kayak, Navigating Early, and Green Angel; and I Am Malala is the story of a 15 year old who nearly died when the school bus in which she was riding was attacked by armed militants. Any effort to remove these and other “controversial” novels would seriously undermine the educational program: “to eliminate everything that is objectionable…will leave public schools in shreds. Nothing but educational confusion and a discrediting of the public school system can result….” McCollum v. Board of Educ. (1948) (Jackson, J. concurring).

No student was required to read Paper Towns; the reading list offers multiple choices, and parents are always entitled to request alternative assignments. By taking the book off the list, however, you are not only denying students whose parents do not object to the book the opportunity to read it to satisfy the summer reading requirement, you are also institutionalizing one viewpoint that is not universally shared.

Once again, we urge you not to go down this path.

Sincerely,
Joan Bertin
Executive Director
National Coalition Against Censorship