Kids’ Right to Read Opposes “Love/Gender/Family” Censorship in Litchfield, NH

On June 18, the Litchfield District School Board in New Hampshire decided to remove four short stories from the “Love/Gender/Family” unit of an upper-class elective English class at Campbell High School.  The stories, including “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway, “Survivor Type” by Stephen King, “The Crack Cocaine Diet” by Laura Lippman, and “I Like Guys” by David Sedaris.
The Kids’ Right to Read Project interviewed Andy Towne, a member of the Class of 2007 at Campbell High School after he authored an op-ed for the Nashua Telegraph about the School Board’s decision in Litchfield.

For more information visit NCAC’s blog:

Click here for “Hemingway, King, Sedaris kicked out of New Hampshire high school classes

Click here for “Litchfield teacher resigns amid short story controversy

Mr. Dennis Miller
Chair of the Litchfield School Board
Litchfield School District
1 Highlander Ct.
Litchfield, NH 03052-8401

July 7, 2009

Dear Mr. Miller,

We write to oppose the removal of several titles from Campbell High School’s upper-class elective on “Love/Gender/Family.” The challenged material, stories by Ernest Hemingway, Stephen King, Laura Lippman, and David Sedaris, were, according to press reports, pulled from Litchfield’s curriculum one day after parental complaints.

Litchfield School District’s procedural manual details a comprehensive policy to address challenges to educational materials. However, the District failed to adhere to its own pre-established policy in this case. Had it done so, it is doubtful whether the stories would have been removed.

District policy requires complaints to be in writing and has provided a form for that purpose,  the “Form for Reconsideration of Materials.”  Upon receipt of the form, principals are required to convene a meeting of the Media Review Committee, which in turn is required to “read and review the material in question, weigh its contested elements against existing selection criteria and file a written report to the School Board explaining the decision that it made.”  According to the policy, “The final decision as to whether to remove the item in question from school instructional program rests with the Board.”

The policy, which is designed to prevent unjustifiable and/or unconstitutional suppression of material, was ignored in its entirety. No review committee was convened, no report was issued, and the materials were removed peremptorily two days after the complaints were raised.  Only afterwards was the matter addressed by the School Board after the materials had already been removed.”  The policy is plainly intended to preclude removal of any materials until an objective evaluation of the pedagogical value of the material has been completed.  Thus the District completely avoided the precautionary procedures which would insure that its action is constitutionally defensible.

Schools have a constitutional obligation not to endorse or accommodate a particular perspective or viewpoint at the expense of alternative views: “Local school boards may not remove books from school libraries simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books and seek by their removal to “prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion.”” Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District No. 26 v. Pico, 457 U.S. 853, 872 (1982) (plurality opinion), quoting West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624, 642 (1943).

Thus, school officials are obliged to resist pressure to suppress unpopular or controversial ideas.  Whatever rights parents have over their children’s upbringing do not accord them a right to have their views reflected in the school curriculum.  No parent has the right “to tell a public school what his or her child will and will not be taught.” Leebaert v. Harrington, 332 F.3d 134, 141 (2d Cir. 2003).  Nor do parents have “a fundamental right generally to direct how a public school teaches their child.” Blau v. Fort Thomas Public School District, et al, 401 F.3d 381, 395 (6th Cir. 2005).

While some parents may prefer to shield their children from reading about certain topics, others may strongly believe that their children should read widely and be exposed to a wide range of information and ideas.  The practical effect of acceding to any request to restrict access to materials is to invite others to demand changes to reflect their beliefs, thus rendering school officials vulnerable to multiple, possibly conflicting demands.

Litchfield’s policy emphasizes this principle, by requiring school officials “to place principle above personal opinion and reason above prejudice in the selection of materials.” It is with this in mind that we urge the Litchfield School District to reaffirm its commitment to following its own established policy by restoring all four stories to Campbell High School’s English curriculum, unless and until a challenge is properly filed and properly reviewed.

Sincerely,

Joan Bertin
Executive Director
National Coalition Against Censorship

Chris Finan
President
American Booksellers Foundation
for Free Expression

CC: School Board
In the past individuals and groups who support free speech have responded in numerous ways to book bans and challenges, including by creating Facebook groups, petitions, organizing marches and ‘read-ins’ and tweeting to spread the word.

You can also call the Litchfield School District (603) 578-3570 or email Dennis Miller, the Chair of the Litchfield School Board at dmiller@litchfieldsd.org directly to voice your opinion.