Superintendent, Hauppauge Public Schools
600 Town Line Road
Hauppauge, NY 11788
Dear Dr. Lochner:
I write to express my serious concerns about your decision to remove three magazines from the Hauppauge Middle School Library. If press reports are accurate, as our inquiries suggest they are, removal of the magazines was precipated, in whole or in part, by a local religious figure who urged parishioners to object to them because they contain "information that goes against what we believe is the truth about sex as Catholic Christians."
Even if the right to intellectual freedom were subject to some sort of majoritarian process – which it most certainly is not – this would not qualify. The evaluation undertaken by the Curriculum Complaint Committee, a group which is both better equipped to make curricular decisions than any self-appointed religious group and also likely to be more representative of the full range of community opinion, voted to retain all three magazines. Your action reversing their decision effectively institutionalizes one religious viewpoint and is deeply anti-democratic. Since when have the rights of public school students to read perfectly legal materials been subject to interpretation by one church official’s opinion about "the truth about sex"?
But even if the complaint came from a parent who simply doesn’t like the magazines, their removal would still be problematic. These materials are widely read by middle school students nationwide, with no indication that they cause harm or influence behavior negatively. Many parents do not object to their presence, and some think they are valuable because they provide access to useful and accurate information that kids might hesitate to seek from parents or teachers. Besides, any kid can buy them at the corner store.
The magazines are presumably available in the library principally for entertainment rather than education, just as Sports Illustrated might be. No one is required to read them. It would be difficult to rationalize retention of Sports Illustrated, but not Seventeen, except on content-based grounds. Is the message sent by the annual "swimsuit" issue of Sports Illustrated better or worse than Seventeen? I’m sure you could have a spirited debate on the point. Does that mean that Sports Illustrated could be the next to go?
The First Amendment forbids government censorship of material on the basis of content or viewpoint. While school officials generally have more latitude than other government officials, your discretion is by no means unbounded. In our view, your position in this situation is not justifiable on either educational or legal grounds. We strongly urge you to restore these magazines to the library where they belong. As the educational leader in your community, you could do a great service by adopting a constructive and constitutionally-approved response to materials that some find objectionable: air the complaints and the concerns they reflect and, instead of censoring the materials, encourage teachers and librarians to undertake discussions with students about whether the materials are worthwhile, and how they can learn to read critically and make their own independent, well-reasoned judgments.
Joan E. Bertin
National Coalition Against Censorship
cc: Members of the Board of Education