Coverage: Bedford school book rating checklist stirs opposition

One family is the source of complaints that have, to date, removed two books from course reading lists at Bedford High School in New Hampshire. Rather than creating procedures that futilely attempt to avoid parental complaints, the school district needs a process for handling complaints and providing alternative reading materials to objecting families without depriving the rest of the school from accessing important literary works.

To: Chip McGee
Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Assessment
Bedford School District
SAU #25
103 County Road
Bedford, NH 03110

March 11, 2011

Dear Mr. McGee,

We write with regard to the recent book challenges that have brought national media attention to Bedford High School and caused concern among administrators, teachers, parents, and students.

We understand that last fall parents Dennis and Aimee Taylor initiated a formal challenge to Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America after it was assigned in their son’s personal finance course.  As grounds for the objection, they complained that the book conveyed an “anti-Christian and anti-capitalist” message (Bedford Union Leader, “Bedford Superintendent Plans Checklist to Rate Books,” March 1, 2011). In response, the school removed the book from the curriculum of the personal finance course, a decision that was covered extensively by the press.  As a result of the publicity, school personnel were subjected to personal attacks from people outside the district who are critical of the book.

More recently, the Taylors objected to an intercession course centered on Sara Gruen’s best-selling Water for Elephants, about a young man who joins a traveling circus during the  Depression. This time the objection was to sexual content. Students could take any one of 25 intercession courses that were offered.   The Taylors’ son selected the course about Water for Elephants.  Even though parents were informed ahead of time about the content of the book and asked to sign a permission slip, the Taylors objected; the course was summarily canceled, and the book was removed from the curriculum.  It was reported that teachers supported the cancellation because they feared that they would again be subject to personal attacks if they failed to remove the book and the situation became public.

We understand that in response to these events, the school is in the process of designing a rating system for selection of curriculum materials to prevent similar incidents in the future (“Bedford Superintendent Plans Checklist”). The rating system’s purpose is to inform parents about the books their children are assigned and the educational goals they serve.  

While we applaud the efforts by school officials to create a system for curricular selections, we suggest that this response is both misguided and insufficient, because it is being driven in whole or in part by a desire to prevent parental complaints in the future.  The only effective way to deal with the problem the school itself created by acceding to the demands of a single family (and thereby inviting repeated demands, not only from them but from others with different views) is to establish professional standards and criteria for selecting materials, to rely on the judgment of professional educators in making decisions, and to recognize that students have a constitutional right to read widely that cannot be infringed in order to cater to specific views or beliefs.  In practical terms, this means refusing to remove materials that are pedagogically justifiable, even if some parents find them objectionable.  It does not preclude offering alternative assignments to students whose parents object to readings that are inconsistent with their views, but it does bar imposing those views on the entire student body by altering the curriculum to accommodate them.

As many courts have observed, the task of selecting readings for the curriculum properly belongs to professional educators. “[W]hile parents can choose between public and private schools, they do not have a constitutional right to ‘direct how a public school teaches their child.’” Parker v. Hurley, 514 F. 3d 87, 102 (1st Cir., 2008)  Parents may be equipped to make choices for their own children, but they are simply not equipped to make decisions that address the needs of the entire student body. The Taylors’ views are not shared by all Bedford parents, and they have no right to impose those views on others or to demand that the educational program reflect their personal preferences.  Public schools have an obligation to “administer school curricula responsive to the overall educational needs of the community and its children.” Leebaert v. Harrington, 332 F.3d 134, 141 (2d Cir. 2003). Thus, no parent has the right “to tell a public school what his or her child will and will not be taught.” Id. Any other rule would put schools in the untenable position of having “to cater to a curriculum for each student whose parents had genuine moral disagreements with the school’s choice of subject matter.” Brown v. Hot, Sexy and Safer Productions, Inc. 68 F.3d 525, 534 (1st Cir. 1995), cert. denied, 516 U.S. 1159 (1996). See also Swanson v. Guthrie Indep. School Dist. 135 F.3d 694, 699 (10th Cir. 1998); Littlefield v. Forney Indep. School, 268 F.3d 275, 291 (5th Cir. 2001).

The practical effect of acceding to any parent’s request to censor materials will be to invite more book challenges, and to leave school officials vulnerable to multiple, possibly conflicting demands. The problem is amply demonstrated in this case:   Dennis Taylor was quoted in the Nashua Telegraph saying that he “intend[s] to fight every similar book that crosses [his] path” (“Second Book Challenged and Removed in Bedford,” February 17, 2011).   In our view, the grounds for the objection to Nickel and Dimed were clearly inadequate.  Indeed, giving in to the demand to remove a book because it is “anti-Christian” arguably exposes the school to legal liability for violating the rights of other students under the Establishment Clause to an education that shows no preference for or deference to religious beliefs.   In short, the first decision set the stage for what has followed by sending the message that parents control the educational program, rather  than educators who are trained and hired with tax money to create an enriching, informative, and challenging learning environment for all students.

If students were precluded from reading literature considered inappropriate by some, they would be deprived of exposure to vast amounts of important material from Shakespeare and the Bible to the works of James Joyce and Maya Angelou. They would also lose the opportunity to hone critical thinking, writing, and media literacy skills that will benefit them throughout their lives. The Water for Elephants-centered course would have required students to develop or utilize these skills in their analysis of the book, their discussions of its historical setting, and their comparison of the book to the film adaptation. The ability to critique fiction in relation to historical events and to review the meanings conveyed through different media forms are integral to many college-level courses. To shield students from challenging and even controversial material in high school will place them at a disadvantage in college and in life. .

Because of the optional nature of the intercession course, the school district could have addressed the Taylors’ concerns by directing them to the two dozen alternative intercession options after they objected and withdrew permission for their son to read the book.   Instead, the school chose a course that infringed upon the First Amendment rights of other students, denying them the opportunity to attend a class designed around a book that has indisputable educational value.    

We applaud the effort to inform parents about the books their children read and to ensure that the curriculum accomplishes the intended educational goals.  However, we are concerned about the concept of a “checklist.”  Literature is more than the sum of its parts.  If decisions are made based not on the book as a whole but on individual elements of it, the problem of censorship will be compounded rather than resolved, because it will encourage further challenges based on specific elements of the “checklist.” Although we appreciate the appeal, there is no such thing as an “objective” assessment of literature.  Judgment matters.  Teachers are trained to make selections based on their professional judgment, taking into account the opinions and advice of other professional educators, and in our view their expertise should be respected unless there is a compelling reason not to do so.

We concur in Principal William Hagen’s “concern as an educator” that, unless the school puts teaching materials “through a respectful and challenging review process, [Bedford] might have a safe and sanitized curriculum” (“Second Book Challenged and Removed in Bedford”). We also fear that efforts to avoid future controversies over assigned readings may lead to a stultifying school environment in which teachers play it safe and students are not challenged and required to consider opinions that differ from their own.  If so, students’ intellectual and emotional development will suffer.  We hope you will keep these concerns in mind as you develop new policies.  You may also want to look at the National Council of Teachers of English’s Guidelines for Selection of Materials in English Language Arts Programs for further guidance. Individual freedom, democracy, and a good education all depend on protecting free speech and the right to read, inquire, question, and think for ourselves.

If we can be of any assistance in this process, please do not hesitate to contact us.


Joan Bertin
Executive Director
National Coalition Against Censorship

Larry Siems
Freedom to Write & International Programs
PEN American Center

Millie Davis
Division Director
Communications and Affiliate Services
National Council of Teachers of English

CC: Principal William Hagen
Superintendent Timothy Mayes

Chris Finan
American Booksellers Foundation
for Free Expression

Judith Platt
Freedom to Read & Communications/Public Affairs
Association of American Publishers