The Kids' Right to Read Project opposed the censorship of Jason Tirado’s poem, ‘Diary of an Abusive Stepfather’, in the teen poetry anthology, Paint Me Like I Am by Bill Aquado and Richard Newirth (Harper) in Landis Intermediate School. In May 2009, Principal Don Kohaut literally ripped the pages including the poem from the book after one parent complained. KRRP sent this letter in response to the challenge.

Click here, to read Charles Ottinger's response. 
Superintendent Charles Ottinger
Vineland School District
625 Plum Street
Vineland, New Jersey 08360

May 27, 2009

Dear Superintendent Charles Ottinger,

We are deeply concerned by reports that you have decided to censor Jason Tirado’s poem “Diary of an Abusive Stepfather” which is included in the nationally recognized teen poetry anthology, Paint Me Like I Am.  We understand that Principal Don Kohaut literally tore the poem from Landis Intermediate School’s copy of the book, and that you supported this choice because you deemed the material “objectionable.”

While school officials have considerable discretion over curricular and pedagogical decisions, that discretion is limited by their obligations under the First Amendment.  According to the Supreme Court, the "bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment… is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable."  Texas v. Johnson (1989).   

As many courts have recognized, the First Amendment right of access to information is particularly applicable in the library.   See, e.g., Counts v. Cedarville School District (W.D. Ark. 2003) and Sund v. City of Wichita Falls (N.D. Tex. 2000).  "`[S]tudents must always remain free to inquire, to study and to evaluate, to gain new maturity and understanding.’ The school library is the principal locus of such freedom.” Board of Education v. Pico, (1982) (plurality opinion).  Indeed, access to controversial ideas and material "prepares students for active and effective participation in the pluralistic, often contentious society in which they will soon be adult members." Id. 

There are other compelling reasons not to censor Paint Me Like I Am.  It is widely recognized as a work of significant literary and artistic merit.  In fact, it was selected as an American Library Association Quick Pick for Reluctant Young Adult Readers. The poems in Paint Me Like I Am, are written by teens for teens and address important issues faced by youth in our society.

Confronting difficult themes like these in literature is part of the educational mission of the schools.  Indeed, the school district puts its students at a distinct educational disadvantage if it fails to prepare them to address literature authored by their peers or difficult themes in literature.  Excluding works that some find “objectionable” would deny students exposure to a wide range of material, including works by Shakespeare, Hawthorne, Faulkner, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Angelou, and Toni Morrison, to name but a few. As these examples suggest, 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).

In practice, censorship of this sort often invites multiple conflicting demands on school officials to remove materials to accommodate specific beliefs or sensitivities.  To avoid such difficulties, and to provide students with the breadth of information and skills necessary to succeed in a diverse society, educators are well-advised to defend the rights of students to access wide-ranging knowledge. School officials have much wider discretion to include material that has pedagogical value than to exclude it, and their decisions to do so have rarely, if ever, been rejected in the courts.  See Monteiro v. Tempe Union High School District (9th Cir. 1998).

We strongly urge you to  restore an unexpurgated copy of Paint Me Like I Am to the school library and allow students, in consultation with their parents, to decide whether they wish to read it.  
Joan Bertin                                                                                                
National Coalition Against Censorship                   
275 7th Avenue, Suite 1504 New York, NY 10001
Phone: (212) 807-6222                                                                                             

Chris Finan
American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression
275 Seventh Avenue Suite 1504 New York, NY 10001
Phone: (212) 587-4025 ext. 15
Fax: (212) 807-6245