Joint letter to Jefferson County Superintendent About Removal of Beloved from High School English Classes

Stephen W. Daeschner, Superintendent
Jefferson County Public Schools

Jefferson County Board of Education
Box 34020
Louisville, KY 40232                        

March 30, 2007

Dear Superintendent Daeschner and Members of the Board of Education:

We are troubled by the recent removal of the book, Beloved by Toni Morrison, from the Advanced Placement (AP) English classes at Eastern High School.  We understand that students were told to stop reading this award-winning novel within 30 pages of the end of the book and that class discussions of the book were terminated because some parents complained about the book’s racial and sexual content.

The sexual content and themes in Beloved represent small but essential parts of the novel, consistent with the kind of material that high school students frequently read.  Indeed, 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 Kentucky.

Beloved is primarily concerned not with sexuality but with the legacy of slavery and the important issues created by differences in social class and race.  Controversy over racially sensitive themes is not new.  The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is frequently targeted for censorship by African-American parents who believe it perpetuates harmful stereotypes.  Many African-American authors have also been attacked for their use of racially sensitive language and themes, including Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Walter Dean Myers, and Alice Walker.  Yet these books are serious and important efforts to expose the reality of racism and the harm it causes.

Beloved has a similarly serious purpose.  The book addresses the harsh realities of slavery and weaves together the memories of an escaped slave’s plantation days with the narrative of her struggles during Reconstruction.  Margaret Atwood, writing for the New York Times Book Review, notes that “[t]hrough the different voices and memories of the book…we experience American slavery as it was lived by those who were its objects of exchange, both at its best – which wasn’t very good – and at its worst, which was as bad as can be imagined.”  Confronting difficult themes in literature like those presented in Beloved is part of the educational mission of the AP program.

In addition, Beloved is widely recognized as a work of significant literary and artistic merit, for which it has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize; and, in 2006 named the “best work of American fiction of the last 25 years” by the New York Times Book Review.  In addition, author Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993 for her collected works, and her writing has been called part of the "canon" of American literature.  Beloved is widely taught in high schools and colleges around the country.  Indeed, the school district would potentially put its students at an educational disadvantage in college if it did not introduce them to literature of this sort in high school.

The views of the parents who object to the book are not shared by others, and banning the book violates their First Amendment rights and those of their children.  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). 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 parent’s request to remove materials will be to invite others to demand changes in the curriculum to reflect their beliefs, leaving 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.

Apparently, Beloved has been pulled from the curriculum without any formal complaint or review process, which normally includes a written request for review identifying specific objections in the context of the book as a whole.  A review committee consisting principally of teachers and school administrators then addresses the complaint and makes 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. Such a process is essential to guard against reliance on subjective judgments and to insure that books are removed only for pedagogically sound and legally sufficient reasons.

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.

Sincerely,

Joan Bertin Chris Finan
Executive Director President
National Coalition Against Censorship American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression
   
Larry Siems Kent Williamson
Director, Freedom to Write and International Programs Executive Director
PEN American Center National Council of Teachers of English

 

 

 

 

Related

 

» Read local news coverage of the case