Free Speech Groups Oppose Censorship of ‘Bless Me, Ultima’

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UPDATE: 2/4/2009 – The Board of Trustees voted this week to remove the book from classrooms.  Read local news coverage in the Modesto Bee.

 

Newman-Crows Landing (CA) Unified School District Superintendent Rick Fauss removed Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya from district high school classes after one parent objected to the book as “anti-Catholic.”  Our letter opposing the ban was published in the Modesto Bee.  In addition, we were joined by the ACLU of Northern California and PEN American Center in sending a letter to the school board opposing the ban:

 

Members of the Board of Trustees
Newman Crows Landing Unified School District
890 Main St.
Newman, CA 95360
Fax: (209) 862-0113

January 9, 2009

Dear Members of the Board of Trustees:

We write to urge you to reinstate Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya in high school classrooms in Newman-Crows Landing Unified School District.  Based on the report of the recent school board meeting in the Modesto Bee (January 6, 2008), it is clear that the student’s parent who challenged the book objected to it because she believes it is anti-Catholic, and that Superintendent Rick Fauss banned the book on this basis without actually having read it.   In our opinion, the removal of the book under these circumstances violates the school board’s obligations under the First Amendment. We hope that the action will be reversed expeditiously.   

As the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California stated in a letter dated December 15, 2008, removing a book from the curriculum on the basis of its perceived religious viewpoints is constitutionally unsound and potentially exposes the school district to legal liability.  Indeed, the district is far more susceptible to legal challenge by banning the book than it would be by keeping it in the curriculum. 

It is well established 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).  Furthermore, the school has 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) citing West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624, 642 (1943).
The practical effect of acceding to any parent’s request to censor materials will be to invite others to demand changes in the curriculum to reflect their beliefs and to leave school officials vulnerable to multiple, possibly conflicting, demands. 

We strongly urge you to restore Bless Me, Ultima to high school classrooms in your school district.  Individual freedom, democracy, and a good education all depend on protecting the right to read, inquire, question, and think for ourselves.
If we can be of assistance in this matter, please do not hesitate to contact us.

Sincerely,

 

Joan Bertin
Executive Director
National Coalition Against Censorship

Chris Finan
President
American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression

Larry Siems
Director, Freedom to Write and International Programs
PEN American Center

Andre Segura
Attorney
Civil Liberties Fellow
American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California

 

Related Resources

Read the Kids’ Right to Read Project’s letter to the Modesto Bee: "Banning book sets a bad precedent" (12/8/2008)

Read local news coverage in the Modesto Bee:
        "Orestimba book ban called ‘scary’" (11/23/2008)
        "Meeting on book ban stirs lively discussion" (1/6/2009)

Book Censorship Toolkit