Dr. David Flowers, Superintendent
Members of the Book Reconsideration Committee
Fargo Public Schools
415 North 4th Street
Fargo, ND 58102
April 30, 2007
Dear Superintendent Flowers and Members of the Book Reconsideration Committee:
We write to express concern about efforts to remove the books, Finding Laura Buggs and Until They Bring the Street Cars Back, both by Stanley Gordon West, from district classrooms. We understand that the books have been challenged because of objections to violence and sexual content, and that the book’s chief challenger, Pamela Herschlip, has agitated for the removal of books from Fargo schools in the past. In addition, she has demanded that the school district ban the books despite district policy explicitly stating that only parents with children in classes assigned to read the books may file formal complaints.
While no book is appropriate for all readers, the decision to read a book should be made by students, guided by the values embraced by their own families. Finding Laura Buggs and Until They Bring the Streetcars Back are in fact recommended for many readers. Bestselling author Harvey McKay has said that Finding Laura Buggs “reaffirms the miracle of life and ultimately its preciousness,” describing it as “a terrific, uplifting read, written with great insight and compassion.” He called Until They Bring the Streetcars Back “[a] rich, gripping, heartwarming story that brings to light the unnoticed lives that are quietly and magnificently heroic.”
Ms. Herschlip’s focus on the sexual content and violence in the two books is misleading. The sexual content and themes in Finding Laura Buggs and Until They Bring the Streetcars Back represent small but essential parts of the novels, consistent with the kind of material that high school students frequently read. If students were precluded from reading literature with sexual content, they would be deprived of exposure to vast amounts of important material, including Shakespeare, major religious texts such as the Bible, the works of Tolstoy, Flaubert, Joyce, Faulkner, D.H. Lawrence, and Nabokov, and contemporary books such as I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and many of the texts regularly assigned in high schools throughout the State of North Dakota.
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 Ms. Herschlip’s sincerity in seeking removal of the books, her views are not shared by all, and she has no right to impose those views on others or to demand that the educational program reflect her personal preferences.
As many courts have observed, 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). Thus, 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 any 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. The normal response to a parent or student who objects to a particular assignment is to offer an alternative assignment. This addresses the concerns of those who seek to limit their exposure to certain words and ideas, without infringing the rights of the many others who are eager for a more inclusive and expansive education. However, Ms. Herschlip need not worry about her children’s exposure to these books, as they are not in classes assigned to read the books; furthermore, it is neither her right nor her responsibility to dictate what other students may read.
We strongly urge you to keep these books in Fargo classrooms. In our experience, controversies of this sort are best handled by enriching the curriculum, not restricting it, and by including additional voices rather than silencing any. If we can be of assistance in this matter, please do not hesitate to call us at (212) 807-6222.
Joan Bertin Chris Finan
Executive Director President