On September 29th, Wyoming City Schools’ School Board voted to back Superintendent, Gail Kist-Kline’s plan to re-evaluate every non-textbook teachers recommend to students. Staff members will now be asked to rate books based on a new 4-point criteria, which inclues the extent to which a book "could create controversy among students, parents and community groups. In response the Kids’s Right to Read Project sent the following letter:
Ms. Gail Kist-Kline, Superintendent
Wyoming City Schools
420 Springfield Pike
Wyoming, Ohio 45215
October 5, 2009
Dear Ms. Kist-Kline,
We write regarding the school board’s recent decision to re-evaluate the titles on student reading lists according to four criteria. Of particular concern is the directive to consider “the extent to which the content could create controversy among students, parents and community groups.”
Considering the potential for controversy in evaluating what books students may read for credit runs counter to long established First Amendment principles and places the school district in a legally vulnerable position. We understand that the policy was adopted in response to two parents’ objections to the sexual content in Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being A Wallflower. However, under established law it is not permissible to remove or restrict access to a book because of objections to the content or viewpoint expressed in
“It is firmly settled that under our Constitution the public expression of ideas may not be prohibited merely because the ideas are offensive to some of their hearers.” Street v. New York, 394 U.S. 576, 595 (1969). Thus, “a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment … is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea
itself offensive or disagreeable.” Texas v. Johnson, 491 U.S. 397, 414 (1989).
While the First Amendment may not apply in the school context as it applies in other settings, one fundamental premise is clearly relevant: school officials may not discriminate on the basis of content or viewpoint in order to accommodate certain beliefs or avoid controversy. “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), citing West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624, 642 (1943).
In keeping with these principles, it is recognized that parents have no enforceable right to have their viewpoint 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).
Removing books from reading lists because of the potential for controversy actually harms students. A school district puts its students at a distinct disadvantage if it fails to expose them to the wide range of ideas that they will encounter in college and in life. Removing potentially controversial books would affect works like Beloved by Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison, as well as books by Maya Angelou, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, not to mention classics by
Shakespeare, James Joyce, and other literary giants.
In practice, censorship invites multiple, sometimes conflicting demands on school officials to exclude other material that someone finds objectionable. To avoid such difficulties, and to provide students with the breadth of information and skills necessary to succeed in a diverse society, educators are well-advised to defend the rights of students to access the broadest range of knowledge. School officials have much wider discretion to include material that has pedagogical value than to exclude it, and their decisions to do so have rarely, if ever, been rejected in the courts. See Monteiro v. Tempe Union High School District (9th Cir. 1998).
Recently, the Supreme Court has spoken directly to the reason why free speech, and the freedom to explore even controversial ideas, is critical to education and the personal and intellectual maturation that accompanies the high school years: It is through speech that our convictions and beliefs are influenced, expressed, and tested. It is through speech that we bring those beliefs to bear on Government and on society. It is through speech that our personalities are formed and expressed. The citizen is entitled to seek out or reject certain ideas or influences without Government interference or control. U.S. v. Playboy Entertainment Group, 529 U.S. 803, 817 (2000).
Your students are entitled to all the resources available to help them make informed decisions as they become adults, unconstrained by what some think is controversial subject matter. These are precisely the ideas they will soon confront in real life. Please feel free to call on us if you wish to discuss these issues, or if we can be of further assistance.
National Coalition Against Censorship
American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression
CC: Todd Levy, President