UPDATE: NCAC followed-up with the Stockton School District to reiterate and amplify on its reasons for opposing any decision to remove or restrict access to the The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Read the second letter here.

NCAC sent the following letter to Stockton School District in Missouri concerning the challenge to Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.  The novel was used during the 2009-2010 school year as the all-school read for grades 9-12, and challenged because the content did not reflect "community values."

August 30, 2010 

Shannon Snow, Superintendent
Stockton R-1 School District

Chad Pyle, School Board President
Stockton R-1 School District

Re: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

Dear Superintendent Snow, President Pyle, and Members of the Stockton R-1 School Board:

We have been following the debate in Stockton about Sherman Alexie’s novel, The Absolutely True Story of A Part-Time Indian. We have previously expressed concerns about the decision to remove the book from the Stockton school district, and write again to reiterate and amplify on our reasons for opposing any decision to remove or restrict access to the book.

Removing a book because some object to, or disapprove of, the ideas in it violates basic constitutional principles. The First Amendment “protects the citizen against the State itself and all of its creatures — Boards of Education not excepted…. That they are educating the young for citizenship is reason for scrupulous protection of Constitutional freedoms of the individual, if we are not to strangle the free mind at its source and teach youth to discount important principles of our government as mere platitudes…. ….” West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette (1943).

It is axiomatic that government officials may not prohibit “the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.” Texas v. Johnson (1989). This principle applies with equal force in public schools: “[l]ocal school boards may not remove books from school libraries simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books …” Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District No. 26 v. Pico (1982). While school official have greater discretion over curricular materials, the requirement remains that schools may only remove materials for educationally sound reasons, not because some object to their content.

No educational rationale has been advanced for removing the book, nor could one be plausibly made. The novel has received universal acclaim by literary critics and educators alike. It received the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature in 2007, and was named one of the best books of the year by School Library Journal. Booklist, a publication of the American Library Association, wrote that “younger teens looking for the strength to lift themselves out of rough situations would do well to start here.” A review in the New York Times called it “a gem of a book…heartbreaking, funny, and beautifully written.” Kirkus Reviews said it “deftly mingles raw feelings with funny, sardonic insight," and Kliatt, a book review for teachers and librarian, wrote that it is "breathtakingly honest, funny, profane, sad….will stay with readers."

The views of the residents of Stockton do not determine whether The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian has literary or educational value. That determination is a foregone conclusion, given the widespread recognition and praise the novel has received. Nor does the fact that some – or even most – members of the school board or community find the book objectionable provide a basis for removing the book. “It is inevitable that government will adopt and pursue programs and policies [which] are contrary to the profound beliefs and sincere convictions of some of its citizens,” but the Constitution does not allow majority opinion to control free speech rights; in this arena, minority views are entitled to be treated “with the same respect as are majority views.” Board of Regents of University of Wisconsin System v. Southworth (2000):

The very purpose of a Bill of Rights was to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities and officials ….One’s right to life, liberty, and property, to free speech, a free press, freedom of worship and assembly, and other fundamental rights may not be submitted to a vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections.

West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette (1943).

Removal of such a work of literature because some consider it vulgar, pornographic, inappropriate, or otherwise objectionable, would be constitutionally suspect and would expose the Board to potential legal liability. It is worth noting that educators are rarely held to violate the First Amendment when they include material that has pedagogical value, whereas removal of material for ideological reasons is vulnerable to legal challenge. See Monteiro v. Tempe Union High School District (9th Cir. 1998) (recognizing the First Amendment right of students to read books selected for their “legitimate educational value”), Parker v. Hurley (1st Cir. 2008) (rejecting effort to remove books that offend parents’ and students’ religious beliefs), Pratt v. Independent School Dist. No. 831 (8th Cir. 1982) (First Amendment violated when films removed because of hostility to content and message), and Case v. Unified School Dist. No. 233 (D. Kan. 1995) (First Amendment violated by removing a book from school library based on hostility to its ideas.)

Each person is entitled to his or her own opinion about the book. Parents who do not wish their children to read it are free to request an alternative assignment, which school officials may grant or deny based on their professional judgment as educators. However, no person is entitled to impose his or her views on others, or to expect school decisions to be based on their views or sensitivities. “[T]he Constitution exists precisely so that opinions and judgments, including esthetic and moral judgments about art and literature, can be formed, tested, and expressed. What the Constitution says is that these judgments are for the individual to make, not for the Government to decree, even with the mandate or approval of a majority.” U.S. v. Playboy Entertainment Group (2000). 

We urge the Board to recognize its constitutional obligation to all students. It has no right or authority to make choices based on the personal, moral, or religious views or values of some, or even most, members of the community. Students have a right to read high quality literature of this sort, and as educators you have an obligation to introduce them to books that are read in high schools around the country. You place your students at a distinct disadvantage if they are denied this opportunity. We strongly urge you to restore the book without restrictions on its use.


Joan E. Bertin, Executive Director, National Coalition Against Censorship
Christopher M. Finan, President, American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression
Millie Davis, Senior Developer, Affiliated Groups and Public Outreach, National Council of Teachers of English
Judith Platt, Director, Freedom to Read & Communications/Public Affairs, Association of American Publishers
Larry Siems, Director, Freedom to Write & International Programs,  PEN America Center
Lin Oliver, Executive Director,  Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators


July 15, 2010

Shannon Snow, Superintendent
Stockton R-1 School District

Chad Pyle, School Board President
Stockton R-1 School District

Dear Superintendent Snow, Board Chair Pyle, and other members of the Stockton R-1 Board:

We write concerning the challenge to Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, a novel used during the 2009-2010 school year as the all-school read for grades 9-12 in your district. We would like to comment from the viewpoint of the National Council of Teachers of English, the National Coalition Against Censorship, the American Library Association, and the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression about this work and our stance on challenges to instructional materials. Please feel free to share this letter with other interested parties in your school, district, and community.

NCTE is a professional organization of 50,000 members and subscribers devoted to improving literacy teaching and learning at all educational levels. We have more than 100 regional, state, and local affiliates with a total membership of over 22,000, including the Missouri Association of Teachers of English Language Arts. NCTE supports students’ right to read and teachers’ professional judgment in the selection of books and methods of instruction. NCTE opposes censorship because it "leaves students with an inadequate and distorted picture of the ideals, values and problems of their culture" (The Students’ Right to Read). In two resolutions NCTE has stood for the selection of materials that "represent a large segment of the community and not the vested interests of a few vocal members" and for the rights of students to have "access to a wide range of books and other learning materials under the guidance of qualified teachers and librarians."

The National Coalition Against Censorship is an alliance of more than 50 national non-profit literary, religious, artistic, educational, professional, labor and civil liberties groups that are united in their commitment to freedom of expression. Since its founding in 1974, NCAC has worked to protect the First Amendment rights of thousands of authors, teachers, students, librarians, readers and others around the country by providing information, resources, and direct assistance to those in opposing censorship efforts.

The American Library Association provides leadership for the development, promotion, and improvement of library and information services and the profession of librarianship in order to enhance learning and ensure access to information for all. Its Office of Intellectual Freedom implements ALA policies concerning the concept of intellectual 2 freedom as embodied in the Library Bill of Rights, the Association’s basic policy on free access to libraries and library materials.

The American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression The American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE) is the bookseller’s voice in the fight against censorship. It represents hundreds of independent bookstores throughout the United States.

To get to specifics, there can be no doubt of the literary value of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. This award-winning novel received the 2008 Book Sense Book of the Year Children’s Literature Honor Book, the 2008 Pacific Northwest Book Award, the 2008 American Indian Library Association American Indian Youth Literature Award, The New York Times Notable Children’s Books of 2007, and the Los Angeles Times Favorite Children’s Books of 2007. The book was cited in Amazon.com Best Books of 2007, in Barnes & Noble 2007 Best for Teens, as The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books Blue Ribbon Winner, in Kansas City Star‘s Top 100 Books of the Year, and as Literature for Today’s Young Adults Honor List 1980-2007. The novel received accolades in numerous reviews, including USA Today (October 18, 2007) which said the novel is "Sure to resonate and lift spirits of all ages for years to come" and in Publishers Weekly (August 20, 2007) whose reviewer praises The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian as emotionally gripping and a thrilling encounter with a teenager struggling with his identity.

As we understand it, the challenge to this book centers on some content in the book, suggesting that the content of the novel is inappropriate for the students and because it does not “reflect *our] community values.” It is clear, though, that the language and situations in this work, as in any text under study, must be seen in the context of the entire work. The ethical and literary value of a work is distorted if one focuses only on particular words, passages, or segments. An author’s broad moral vision, total treatment of theme, and commitment to realistic portrayal of characters and dialogue are ignored when protesters focus only on aspects that are offensive to them. Unfortunately, there is shock value in isolating and listing selected passages from a book; but this does not reveal anything about the fundamental message or theme in a work and it does not provide insight into its literary quality.

In our experience with school curricula, we have found that there are few instructional materials that do not include something that is offensive to someone. If literary works that are duly selected by English teaching professionals are removed because the works offend particular individuals or groups, there will soon be little or no literature left to teach in our schools. Further, it would be wrong to assume that the disturbing scenes, profane language, negative events, etc., portrayed in a work are being endorsed by the author, the teacher, or the school. In fact, classroom study provides a fertile ground for students to interpret surface aspects of literature and to exercise critical thinking as they discuss the characters and issues in a work. The novel was chosen specifically for the high school English classes because its complex themes are appropriate for study at that level and because it is a young adult novel that students can draw upon when answering the “critical lens” questions pertinent to literature study in grades 9-12.

We support district policies for selection and review of challenges to instructional materials and emphasize the importance of following these policies when adopting instructional materials and when they are challenged. We understand that your school district has policies for reviewing challenged materials. We also understand that in April the novels were pulled from the classroom and that the board banned the books both from the classroom and from the school library. We emphasize, however, that all policies must be implemented consistent with the First Amendment, which prohibits public schools from censoring a book because of objections to the ideas it expresses. The complaint that the book does not reflect “community values” is precisely such an attack on the book because of its ideas, and removing a book on that ground would, in our view, be constitutionally suspect.

As we understand it, in this instance the objector did not have a student in the high school. It is unfair and undemocratic for a parent or group to foreclose on the rights of other parents to guide and monitor their children’s readings. Such an act is clearly censorial and we’re dismayed that it has occurred in your district. 3 We urge the school board to rectify this situation at its next meeting by reinstating Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian to the district’s high school classrooms and library.

Please feel free to contact us if we can be of further assistance.

Yours truly,

Joan E. Bertin, Executive Director, National Coalition Against Censorship
Millie Davis, Senior Developer, Affiliated Groups and Public Outreach, National Council of Teachers of English
Barbara M. Jones, Director, Office for Intellectual Freedom, American Library Association
Christopher M. Finan, President, American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression