Many book censorship incidents start with a single complaint seeking to remove one or more books from a school classroom or library. But what is at stake is more than a few books. Often battles over books represent an effort to imbue the public schools with a particular set of views and values. That’s why so many book censorship cases become emotionally loaded crusades.

For example, Dennis and Aimee Taylor, the parents of a Bedford, N.H., high school student, successfully campaigned to have Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America removed from their son’s personal finance course because they thought it conveyed an “anti-Christian and anti-capitalist” message. Later the same parents added “sex” to their list of objectionable content and succeeded in removing Water for Elephants, which was to be taught in one of 25 elective intersession classes. Encouraged by these victories, Dennis Taylor said that he “intend[s] to fight every similar book that crosses [his] path.”

Across the country in Oregon, parent Lisa Albrecht challenged A Thousand Splendid Suns in her daughter’s Advanced Placement English class. Albrecht is now running for the school board so as to “continue to fight for conservative family values.” Part of her platform is that alternative assignments are an unacceptable form of discrimination and that “alternate courses” should be offered for “those of us with conservative family values.” In Brookline, N. H., a campaign is underway, spearheaded by parents Debbie and Steve Pucci, to rid the high school of books with profanity and sexual content, as well as films dealing with issues like population control and drug trafficking in post-Katrina New Orleans. The list goes on.

These parents are entitled to their beliefs and values. But they’re trying to exercise the heckler’s veto, by threatening endless challenges and controversy if their views are not reflected in the school curriculum.

What are schools to do in the face of this onslaught? As many courts have recognized, they cannot “cater a curriculum for each student whose parents [have] genuine moral disagreement with the school’s choice of subject matter.” Leaving aside the practical impossibility of acceding to multiple, often competing demands, the result would be educational mayhem. Any 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. (1948) (Jackson, J. concurring).

One thing is sure: the hecklers will strike again. The best course for school officials facing their demands is also the constitutionally mandated choice: to make decisions that will provide the best possible education for their students. The First Amendment gives schools the power, as well as the obligation, to prevent even the most determined heckler from succeeding in imposing his or her views on others. — Joan Bertin