Hanover School District’s Fix Could Actually Make Things Worse

NEW YORK, January 13, 2015 — The National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) is cautioning school officials in Hanover County, VA that policy changes intended to reduce complaints about instructional materials could actually do the opposite.

At a school board meeting tonight, three changes to board policies are being mulled over in response to controversies surrounding the use of Thomas L. Friedman Reporting: Searching for the Roots of 9/11 in the district’s classrooms. The film had come under fire early in the school year from parents who felt that it expressed sympathy with terrorists.

Following a careful review last month, the school board rejected a formal call for the film to be banned from classrooms. The board is now considering policies that it hopes will reduce the frequency of community complaints about instructional materials. The changes would require, among other things, pre-clearance of any material that raises concerns about “appropriateness” and an opt-out and alternative assignment policy.

But who would determine “appropriateness”? As a January 12 letter from the Coalition to the district explains: “The question of what is sensitive or appropriate is a highly subjective and wide-ranging one, implicating a number of materials that address race, gender, religion, sex, violence, history, science, politics, the environment, or any other issue on which people disagree.”

Co-signed by the American Booksellers for Free Expression, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, PEN American Center, and the National Council of Teachers of English, the letter comes in advance of the District's January 13 meeting.

Joan Bertin, Executive Director of NCAC, points out that the practical implications of such policy changes, which were crafted to head off complaints about instructional materials, could very well do the opposite:

“Labeling sensitive materials – and opening up the possibility for endless alternative assignments – is a prescription for educational chaos that will stigmatize and deter the teaching of valuable works, invite ongoing controversy, and ultimately undermine the quality of education students receive.”

The signatories hope that the district will continue to select educational materials for their educational value rather than subjective ideas about their “appropriateness.”

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 The National Coalition Against Censorship promotes freedom of thought, inquiry, and expression and opposes censorship in all its forms. NCAC’s diverse coalition of more than 50 national organizations, representing the artistic, educational, religious, and labor communities, join together in the interest of protecting First Amendment rights. Learn more about current campaigns at pair.ncac.org.