Dr. Joseph Wise
Superintendent of Schools
Duval County Public Schools
1701 Prudential Drive
Jacksonville, FL 32207
March 16, 2007
Dear Dr. Wise:
We are troubled by media reports of efforts to remove a number of books from two public school libraries in Duval County. We understand that parents have objected to Vegan Virgin Valentine by Carolyn Mackler at Mandarin High School and to Lucky by Eddie de Oliveira, Beyond the Chocolate War by Robert Cormier, Tiger Eyes by Judy Blume, and Olive’s Ocean by Kevin Henkes at LaVilla School of the Arts. Most of the objections concern the allegedly “offensive” language in the books. In the case of Lucky, the critics dislike the protagonist’s questioning of his own sexuality.
At minimum, some challengers want parental permission to be required for middle and high school students who want to check the books out of the libraries. According to recent news reports, parents have initiated a district review process for Vegan Virgin Valentine to assess the book’s “appropriateness.”
We strongly urge you to resist such efforts. 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. The opinions of the parents who seek to place restrictions on Vegan Virgin Valentine, Lucky, Tiger Eyes, Beyond the Chocolate War, and Olive’s Ocean, are not shared by all. They have no right to impose their views on others or demand that the district’s libraries reflect their personal preferences.
Attacking ideas and books for addressing issues related to sexuality and gender identity is destructive and antithetical to any school’s educational mission, creating instead a climate of fear and intimidation rather than open, reasoned discussion and learning. Vegan Virgin Valentine is in fact well regarded by librarians, parents, and young readers alike. The School Library Journal says the book presents “the universal theme of growing up and figuring out what’s important” and notes that “[t]his title will have strong appeal for teens grappling with these same questions.” Readers have said that the book “inspired me to be myself,” that it speaks “about a family and their everyday life with family problems and how to deal with those problems,” and that the story has “a lot of similarities to my own life.” Lucky presents the story of a teenager attracted to both boys and girls “who is trying to find where he fits in.” The book addresses questions and themes relevant to some students, regardless of whether all parents choose to acknowledge the fact.
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. "Objectionable language" and “questionable content” are broad and subjective categories open to a wide range of interpretations, encompassing virtually anything. Even narrowing the definition to language normally deemed "vulgar" or "profane" would disqualify works of William Shakespeare, Nathaniel Hawthorne, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Maya Angelou, and Toni Morrison, to name but a few. 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 urge you and the members of the school board to insist that any review process adopted in evaluating these materials conforms to professional educational standards. This normally includes submission of a written request for review which includes specific objections and indicates that the challenger has read the book in its entirety. In the usual case, the complaint is addressed first by a review committee consisting principally of teachers, librarians, and school administrators, who make a recommendation based on the book’s educational value and interest to students. If it becomes necessary for the school board to review their decision, its members have the benefit of a thorough and thoughtful review of the book conducted by the professionals most familiar with students’ educational needs and interests.
Parents are free to direct their own children’s reading choices, but not to force their values, judgments and preferences on others. We urge you to carefully consider your constitutional responsibility not to censor certain views, facts and ideas, but instead to provide students in your district 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. If we can be of further assistance, please do not hesitate to contact us.
|Joan Bertin||Chris Finan||Fran Manushkin and Susan Kuklin|
|Executive Director||President||Co-Chairs, Children’s Book Authors Committee|
|National Coalition Against Censorship||American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression||PEN American Center|