An invitation to young adult novelist Ellen Hopkins to speak about her experiences as a writer was rescinded by the Superintendent of the Humble (Texas) Independent School District after some parents complained about the content of her books. NCAC coordinated a letter of protest with five other national organizations. After Hopkins was disinvited to Teen Lit Fest 2011, five other authors dropped out in protest rather than participate in an event that had censored another author. Sadly for the students of the area, the program has been cancelled. Some might blame the authors who withdrew, but we think full responsibility rests on the school officials who made the decision to censor Hopkins. Read our letter here.
August 26, 2010
Dr. Guy Sconzo, Superintendent
Humble Independent School District
Re Teen Lit Fest 2011
Dear Superintendent Sconzo:
We write to protest the recent cancellation of Ellen Hopkins’ appearance at Teen Lit Fest 2011. As we understand it, objections to her books from some members of the community prompted you to direct that the invitation be withdrawn.
Depriving the entire student body (and other interested members of the public) of the opportunity to hear a speaker because a few people object to or disapprove of what she has written violates basic constitutional principles. Under the First Amendment, it is unconstitutional to prohibit “the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.” Texas v. Johnson (1989). “[T]he Constitution exists precisely so that opinions and judgments, including esthetic and moral judgments about art and literature, can be formed, tested, and expressed. What the Constitution says is that these judgments are for the individual to make, not for the Government to decree, even with the mandate or approval of a majority.” US v. Playboy Entertainment Group (2000).
These principles apply with equal force to school officials: “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion….” West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette (1943). Thus, “[l]ocal school boards may not remove books from school libraries simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books …” Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District No. 26 v. Pico, (1982). Schools may not remove speakers because they dislike their ideas any more than they can remove books for that reason.
We can conceive of no legitimate pedagogical rationale that could be advanced for excluding Ms. Hopkins. The invitation was withdrawn peremptorily, with no consultation or opportunity for different opinions to be expressed. The judgments of the professional educators and librarians who organized the event were simply ignored, but plainly they selected Ms. Hopkins because they believe that students would benefit from hearing her speak. Moreover, Ms. Hopkins was invited to talk about her career as a writer, not to talk about or read from her books. Even if she referred to one or more of her novels to discuss how she develops story ideas and what inspires her imagination, it is difficult to imagine how students could be harmed by hearing how she came to become a successful author and how she practices her craft.
The opinions of some should not be allowed to control the content of a program intended for all. Attendance at this event was not mandatory. Parents who disagreed with the decision to include Ms. Hopkins were free to keep their children from attending. However, they have no right to dictate what other people’s children can read, see, hear or think. When Ms. Hopkins was disinvited, five other authors decided to withdraw from the event rather than lend support to an event that censors speakers because of what they write. We understand that the program has now been cancelled, so students who wanted to meet and hear from published authors are the big losers.
We urge you to reconsider your decision and allow the event to proceed as originally planned. To deny all students access to an author because some people object to her views violates the rights of other students who want to meet her and hear her speak, and the rights of their parents not to have their own child’s education restricted to accommodate the demands of others.
Joan E. Bertin, Executive Director, National Coalition Against Censorship
Christopher M. Finan, President, American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression
Judith Platt, Director, Freedom to Read & Communications/Public Affairs, Association of American Publishers
Larry Siems, Director, Freedom to Write & International Programs, PEN America Center
Millie Davis, Division Director, Communications and Affiliate Services, National Council of Teachers of English
Lin Oliver, Executive Director, Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators