The NCAC wrote this letter in response to a parent’s challenge.
Dr. Susan Watne
Review Committee for Helena Public Schools
Dear Dr. Watne and Members of the Review Committee for Helena Public Schools,
We write concerning the challenge to Sherman Alexie’s acclaimed novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. We understand that a parent has objected to the book because of language and sexual content and that a committee has been convened to review the book. We applaud you for having a procedure in place to deal with book challenges and hope that the information we provide will be useful in the reconsideration process. In brief, widely accepted legal and educational principles suggest that there is no basis for removing the book and doing so would raise serious constitutional questions.
No educational rationale has been advanced for removing the book, nor could one be plausibly made. The literary value of this prize-winning novel is widely recognized. The New York Times called The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian “a gem of a book…heartbreaking, funny, and beautifully written.” USA Today said it is"sure to resonate and lift spirits of all ages for years to come." Publishers Weekly praised the novel as an emotionally gripping story of a teenager struggling with his identity. 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.”
These judgments are reflected in the many awards The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian has received. It won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature in 2007, 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, among many others. The complainant’s view that these awards and accolades are meaningless, and that the book is “filth [that] corrodes our soul,” represents a minority opinion that hardly deserves more credit than s/he accords the professional reviewers.
The challenge to this book centers on objections to content in the book that is characterized as “obscene,” “vulgar” and “pornographic.” 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, which must be the focus of school officials responding to such challenges.
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. Further, it would be wrong to assume that the disturbing scenes, profane language, negative events, etc., portrayed in a work are 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 is commonly used in 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.
Removing a book because some object to, or disapprove of, its content violates basic constitutional principles. Government officials, including public school administrators, may not prohibit “the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.” Texas v. Johnson (1989); see also Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District No. 26 v. Pico (1982) (“local school boards may not remove books from school libraries simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books …”)
The task of selecting readings for the curriculum properly belongs to professional educators. Parents may be equipped to make choices for their own children but, no matter how well-intentioned, they simply are not qualified to make curricular decisions. Without questioning the sincerity of those who object to the book, their views are not shared by all and they have no right to impose those views on others.
Parents have no right to have their viewpoint reflected in the school curriculum. No parent has the right “to tell a public school what his or her child will and will not be taught.” Leebaert v. Harrington, 332 F.3d 134, 141 (2d Cir. 2003). Nor do parents have “a fundamental right generally to direct how a public school teaches their child.” Blau v. Fort Thomas Public School District, et al, 401 F.3d 381, 395 (6th Cir. 2005). Furthermore, the school has a constitutional obligation not to endorse or accommodate a particular perspective or viewpoint at the expense of alternative views. It is well established that “no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, [or] religion….” West Virginia State Bd. of Educ. v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624, 642 (1943).
The practical effect of acceding to any parent’s request to censor materials will be to invite others to demand changes in the curriculum to reflect their beliefs and to leave school officials vulnerable to multiple, possibly conflicting, demands. Moreover, if all the books that someone finds offensive were removed, very little would remain in classrooms and libraries. By offering an alternative assignment, as was done in this case, the concerns of the objecting parent are met without infringing the rights of the many others who are eager for a more inclusive and expansive education.
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.)
In our view, there is no basis to remove this book. On the one hand, the book unquestionably has educational value; on the other hand, its removal is sought because a parent is offended by its content. While some may sympathize with the parent’s concerns, the school has a duty to base its decisions on educational and constitutional considerations. The students deserve no less.
Joan E. Bertin, Executive Director
National Coalition Against Censorship
Christopher M. Finan, President
American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression
Lin Oliver, Executive Director
Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators
Larry Siems, Director
Freedom to Write & International Programs
PEN American Center
Freedom to Read & Communications/Public Affairs
Millie Davis, Divisions Director
Communications and Affiliate Services
National Council of Teachers of English