Bartlesville Board of Education
PO Box 1357
1100 S Jennings
Bartlesville, OK 74003
Superintendent Dr. Gary Quinn
PO Box 1357
1100 S Jennings
Bartlesville, OK 74003
May 8, 2007
Dear Dr. Quinn and Members of the Bartlesville Board of Education,
We write to express concerns about the recent removal of the book The Bermudez Triangle by Maureen Johnson from circulation in the Bartlesville Mid-High school library. We understand that the book was removed following parent Angela Rader’s objection to homosexual themes and descriptions of underage drinking in the book. Calling the book “unsuitable for children,” Ms. Rader has protested that the book may “raise a lot of questions.”
The Bermudez Triangle is in fact well regarded by librarians, parents, and young readers alike and is recommended for exactly this age group. Booklist, published by the American Library Association, says “Johnson creates believable, likable characters in very real, contemporary high-school situations…. She understands, articulates, and validates their lives.” The book addresses questions and themes relevant to some students, regardless of whether all parents choose to acknowledge the fact.
The task of selecting books for inclusion in school libraries properly belongs to professional educators. Parents may be equipped to make reading choices for their own children, but, no matter how well-intentioned, they simply are not equipped to make decisions for others. Ms. Rader’s opinions are not shared by all. She has no right to impose her views on others or to demand that the school library reflect her personal preferences.
School officials are bound by constitutional considerations, including a duty not to discriminate against unpopular or controversial ideas. The U.S. Supreme Court has cautioned that "local school boards may not remove books from library shelves 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 v. Pico, 457 U.S. 853, 872 (1982) (plurality opinion). This constitutional duty applies with particular force in the school library, which, unlike the classroom, has “a special role…as a place where students may freely and voluntarily explore diverse topics.” Campbell v. St. Tammany Parish School Board, 64 F.3d 184, 190 (5th Cir. 1995).
The practical effect of acceding to any request to restrict access to materials will be to invite others to demand changes in the library to reflect their beliefs and to leave school officials vulnerable to multiple, possibly conflicting, demands. Ms. Rader’s judgment that The Bermudez Triangle is “unsuitable for children” is a purely subjective, individual evaluation; in the past, assessments such as Ms. Rader’s have disqualified works of William Shakespeare, Nathaniel Hawthorne, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Maya Angelou, and Toni Morrison, to name but a few, from schools. As these examples suggest, the 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., 333 U.S. 203, 235 (1948) (Jackson, J. concurring).
We commend your district for having a formal review process in place to evaluate the book. However, such a process must conform to professional educational standards. One such well-established standard is that the complaining parent and the members of the reconsideration committee read the book in question. However, Ms. Rader, the complaining parent, admits she has not read the book in its entirety, and a majority of members on the committee likewise admit that they have not read the book at all or have only skimmed parts of it. There is no point in convening a book reconsideration committee if its members do not carefully and thoroughly read the books they are asked to review. The judgments rendered as a result of such a flawed process would be wholly lacking in integrity and credibility.
We urge you to review your policy and to demand that your committee members do their homework before making important decisions of this nature. Furthermore, we urge you to carefully consider your constitutional responsibility not to censor certain views, facts and ideas, but instead to provide Bartlesville students with access to the range of information and ideas to which their peers around the country are exposed. To do otherwise is to penalize students, whose knowledge of the world and ability to compete in it will be compromised.
For your information, we are enclosing copies of a booklet on school censorship that was produced by the National Coalition Against Censorship in collaboration with the National Education Association. We also suggest you refer to "The Student’s Right to Read," a guideline established by the National Council of Teachers of English and available online at: http://www.ncte.org/about/over/positions/category/cens/107616.htm. We hope these materials will be useful to you and perhaps to teachers and parents involved in this discussion.
In our experience, controversies of this sort are best handled by enriching the array of reading materials available, not restricting them, and by including additional voices and titles rather than suppressing or excluding any. If we can be of assistance in this matter, please do not hesitate to contact us.
|Joan Bertin||Chris Finan|
|National Coalition Against Censorship||American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression|