Mark Cohan, Superintendent of Schools and Members of the Cromwell Board of Education
9 Mann Memorial Drive
Cromwell, Connecticut 06416
Dear Superintendent Cohan and Members of the Cromwell Board of Education:
We understand that some residents seek to remove Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia and Elizabeth George Speare’s The Witch of Blackbird Pond, from the Cromwell middle school, and to eliminate some school activities, which they claim promote witchcraft. We are writing to urge you not to accede to these requests, and to offer our assistance in defending the decision to retain these acclaimed books.
Both books won the prestigious Newbery Medal and other awards. They are widely celebrated and deservedly popular. The charge that they are "satanic [and] a danger to our children" is both inaccurate and ironic, given that Katherine Patterson says of herself: "I am Christian, so that conviction will pervade the book even when I make no conscious effort to teach or preach. Grace and hope will inform everything I write."
Both books promote values such as friendship, individuality, honesty, and open-mindedness, and sensitively confront issues such as death and prejudice. The Witch of Blackbird Pond is about a woman who is ostracized by her community because of false rumors that she practices witchcraft. The story recounts the friendship between the woman and a girl who aids the older woman and then faces similar accusations. The book explores themes of friendship and family, prejudice, courage and survival.
Bridge to Terabithia chronicles the development of a deep friendship and champions strength in the face of tragedy. The book is about two adolescents who become inseparable friends and create a magical world where they can escape the problems of the real world. Tragically, one of the friends dies and the other must cope with the loss. Essentially a story about the many bridges between childhood and adulthood, Bridge to Terabithia offers valuable insights for young people.
Without questioning the sincerity of those seeking removal of the books, their views are not shared by all and they have no right to impose their views on others or demand that the educational program reflect their literary or religious preferences. To give in to these demands would infringe the rights of other students and undermine the quality of their education.
The Supreme Court has held that 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." This has specific application in school, which "is peculiarly the ‘marketplace of ideas.’" In schools and elsewhere, the "Constitution does not permit the official suppression of ideas." Indeed, access to controversial ideas "prepares students for active and effective participation in the pluralistic, often contentious society in which they will soon be adult members."
While school officials have considerable discretion over curricular and pedagogical decisions, they may not makes choices "simply because they dislike the ideas" or because they hope to "prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion." See, e.g., Campbell v. St. Tammany Parish School Board (5th Cir.1995)(ordering a trial to determine whether removal of Voodoo & Hoodoo resulted from a desire to "deny students access to ideas.")
While removal of the books raises serious First Amendment concerns, retention of educationally sound material does not. The Second Circuit, which includes Connecticut, recently rejected an attempt to ban school materials and activities that allegedly promoted "satanism and occultism." (Altman v. Bedford Central School Dist, 2001).The court reaffirmed the critical distinction between reading and teaching about various beliefs and practices, which is permitted, and endorsing a particular religious view, which is not.
In practice, acceding to demands for censorship of this sort often invites others to seek changes in the curriculum to reflect their beliefs. For all these reasons, we strongly urge you to defend the need to provide students with the breadth of information and skills necessary to succeed in a diverse society, and to defend the rights of students to acquire wide-ranging knowledge.
At a minimum, it is essential to adhere to a rational review process in responding to complaints about curricular or library materials; key elements include a written complaint specifying the grounds for removal, assessment of the materials by professional educators, and clearly defined standards for removal that incorporate and reflect relevant constitutional considerations and obligations.
For your information, I am enclosing copies of a booklet on school censorship that we produced in collaboration with the National Education Association. I hope it will be useful to you and members of the Board, and perhaps to teachers and parents involved in this discussion. If you would like additional copies, please let me know. Also, if we can assist you in responding to the current situation, please do not hesitate to call.
Joan E. Bertin
National Coalition Against Censorship