Free Speech Groups Support School’s Decision to Keep Angels in America in AP English Class
*UPDATE*: The school board voted unanimously to uphold the principal’s decision to keep the book in the curriculum. Also, now read a response from a recent graduate of Deerfield High School who shares how Angels in America and other challenging material he studied at Deerfield helped prepare him for college.
Angels in America by Tony Kushner will still be taught in Deerfield High School’s AP English class, despite complaints from a community member who objected to its sexual, religious and racial content and public attacks made by a local organization that call the play "pornography".
NCAC and ABFFE were joined by four other organizations in sending the following letter to the Superintendent and School Board supporting their resolve to stand by First Amendment principles:
Principal Sue Hebson
Deerfield High School
1959 N Waukegan Rd
Deerfield, IL 60015
Superintendent George Fernaro
Members of the Board of Education
1040 Park Ave West
Highland Park, IL 60035
March 14, 2008
Dear Principal Hebson, Superintendent Fernaro and Members of the Board of Education,
We strongly commend your decision to keep Tony Kushner’s play, Angels in America, available to students as part of the Advanced Placement (AP) English curriculum at Deerfield High School, despite complaints from an anonymous “parent-citizen” who objects to the sexual, racial and religious content in the play. We also understand that instead of taking advantage of the school’s appeals procedures, the “parent representative,” Laura Sue Hauser from the North Shore Student Advocacy has publicly attacked the work as “pornography.” We applaud your principled stance in support of the First Amendment in the face of such an attack.
North Shore Student Advocacy has grossly mischaracterized and sensationalized passages from the play. Material should always be considered as a whole and never as isolated passages or words taken out of context. It happens that Angels in America is widely recognized as a work of significant literary and artistic merit. Considered a part of the “canon” of American theatre and literature, the play has been lauded by critics and was awarded the prestigious Pulitzer Prize, as well as several Tony Awards, including Best Play.
Angels in America does have mature content, including sexual, religious and racially sensitive themes, because it confronts the AIDS epidemic in the 1980’s as a way of exploring political, philosophical and spiritual questions about humanity at the turn of the millennium. However, confronting difficult themes through literature is part of the educational mission of public schools in general, and the AP program in particular. Indeed, the school district would put its students at a distinct educational disadvantage in college if it failed to prepare them to address literature of this sort. This concern is not insignificant, considering the fact that virtually all the students in this class are college-bound, and that many will attend highly competitive and demanding schools with students who have been exposed to this play, or comparably complex literature.
Excluding works with controversial material would deny students exposure to a wide range of material. Even narrowing the restriction to works containing language deemed "vulgar" or "profane" would disqualify works of 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).
As the school has recognized, the task of selecting readings for the curriculum properly belongs to professional educators. Parents may be equipped to make choices for their own children but, no matter how well-intentioned, they simply are not equipped to make decisions that address the needs of the entire student body. Without questioning the sincerity of those seeking removal of this play, their views are not shared by all, and they have no right to impose those views on others or demand that the educational program reflect their personal preferences.
Many courts have observed that public schools have the obligation to "administer school curricula responsive to the overall educational needs of the community and its children." Leebaert v. Harrington, 332 F.3d 134, 141 (2d Cir. 2003). No parent has the right "to tell a public school what his or her child will and will not be taught." Id. Any other rule would put schools in the untenable position of having "to cater a curriculum for each student whose parents had genuine moral disagreements with the school’s choice of subject matter." Brown v. Hot, Sexy and Safer Productions, Inc., 68 F.3d 525, 534 (1st Cir. 1995), cert. denied, 516 U.S. 1159 (1996). See also Swanson v. Guthrie Indep. School Dist., 135 F.3d 694, 699 (10th Cir. 1998); Littlefield v. Forney Indep. School, 268 F.3d 275, 291 (5th Cir. 2001).
The practical effect of acceding to one 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 understand that Deerfield has already agreed to accommodate anyone who objects to the play by offering an alternative assignment. The fact that only a handful of students in the class chose the alternative indicates that the great majority of parents do not wish to shield their children from exposure to such literature. The views of those who object to the play are obviously not shared by others, and by keeping the play, you have protected the rights of parents who want their children to receive a more inclusive and expansive education. The First Amendment gives all parents the opportunity to make choices about their children’s education.
We strongly support your decision to respect the right of students to study Angels in America as a part of their AP English class and to stand by the principle that is so essential to individual freedom, democracy, and a good education: the right to read, inquire, question, and think for ourselves.
|Joan Bertin||Chris Finan|
|National Coalition Against Censorship||American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression|
|Kent Williamson||Judith Platt|
|Executive Director||Director, Freedom to Read|
|National Council of Teachers of English||Association of American Publishers|
|John Weidman||Larry Siems|
|President||Director, Freedom to Read and International Programs|
|Dramatists Guild of America, Inc.||PEN American Center|