In September 2009, the Kids’ Right to Read Project received a report from a concerned parent that a teacher had unilaterally censored students’ copies of The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls (Scribner). In response the KRRP sent this letter:
Mr. Jeffery Hatala, Principal
North Pocono High School
200 Bochicchio Blvd.
Covington Twp., PA 18444
September 21, 2009
Dear Mr. Hatala,
We are deeply concerned by a report that North Pocono High School distributed censored copies of Jeannette Wall’s The Glass Castle to 10th grade accelerated English students. We understand that a teacher at your school literally tore pages from students’ copies of
the book and also allegedly used a marker to black-out words she found offensive.
It is hard to imagine that an individual teacher has the unilateral authority to censor a book that has been selected for particular students. If the teacher acted outside the scope of her authority, that is a problem in itself. It is compounded by the fact that the action violates constitutional principles and potentially exposes the school to liability for a violation of the First Amendment.
Even if the decision is made by someone in a position of authority and responsibility, the constitutional issues remain. While school officials have considerable discretion over curricular and pedagogical decisions, that discretion is limited by their obligations under the First Amendment. According to the Supreme Court, the "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 (1989). Indeed, access to controversial ideas and material "prepares students for active and effective participation in the pluralistic, often contentious society in which they will soon be adult members" Board of Education v. Pico, (1982) (plurality opinion).
There are other compelling reasons not to censor The Glass Castle. Jeannette Wall’s memoir is widely recognized as a work of significant literary and artistic merit. It has received many awards, including the ALEX Award, the Christopher Award and the Evergreen Young Adult Book Award. It was also selected by the American Place Theater’s Literature to Life Program for adaptation as a one-woman dramatic piece for high school audiences. Confronting difficult themes in literature is part of a public school’s educational mission.
A school district puts its students at a distinct educational disadvantage if it fails to prepare them to address controversial issues. Excluding works that some find “objectionable” would deny students exposure to a wide range of material, including works by Shakespeare, Hawthorne, Faulkner, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Angelou, and Toni Morrison, to name but a few. As these examples suggest, any attempt "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). This problem would be greatly amplified if individual teachers were permitted to censor books they personally find offensive. Students in one class might read one version of a book, while those in a different class would be reading a different version.
In practice, censorship of this sort often invites multiple, conflicting demands on school officials to remove materials to accommodate specific beliefs or sensitivities. 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 wide-ranging 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).
We strongly urge you to restore unexpurgated copies of The Glass Castle to allow students at North Pocono High School, in consultation with their parents, to decide whether they wish to read it. Individual freedom, democracy, and a good education all depend on protecting free speech and the right to read, inquire, question, and think for
National Coalition Against Censorship
American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression