The Wyandotte, MI, School Board has banned The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad from classrooms and the library at Roosevelt High School while the book is reviewed by a reconsideration committee. One student’s parents and her "spiritual mentor" object to violence and sexual content and asked that the book be removed in the fall. The book was being taught in honors English classes. It was removed from the library and placed in the superintendent’s office earlier this month. The Kids’ Right to Read Project sent this letter to the school board, opposing the book ban:
Dr. Patricia A. Cole, Superintendent
Wyandotte Board of Education
639 Oak Street
Wyandotte, MI 48192
February 25, 2009
Dear Dr. Cole and Members of the Wyandotte Board of Education,
We write to oppose the banning of The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad from the library and honors English classes at Roosevelt High School. We understand that two adults in the community – a parent and her daughter’s “spiritual mentor” – objected to violence and sexual content in the book and asked that it be removed. We applaud the board’s decision to implement a new Media Selection Guidelines Policy and to revise its bylaws to include a formal process for dealing with challenges to instructional and library materials. However, we also understand that the school board decided to pull the book from the library and classes while policies were formed and to maintain the ban during the book’s review. In our opinion, the removal of the book before a review of its pedagogical value has been done raises serious First Amendment concerns. We urge you to reinstate it pending review.
School officials are bound by constitutional considerations, including a duty not to give in to pressure to suppress unpopular ideas or controversial language. It is well established that parents have no enforceable 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: “Local school boards may not remove books from school libraries simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books and seek by their removal to “prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion.”” Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District No. 26 v. Pico, 457 U.S. 853, 872 (1982) (plurality opinion) citing West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624, 642 (1943).
Removing a book on the basis of excerpts or words that some find objectionable is inherently reductive and subjective. Books should be evaluated as entire works, with their pedagogical value and literary framework taken into account, and not reduced to isolated passages. In fact, the Supreme Court has held that it is “an essential First Amendment rule” that “[t]he artistic merit of a work does not depend on the presence of a single explicit scene.” Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition, 535 U.S. 234, 248 (2002).
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.
District officials have appropriately assembled a team of educators and community members to review the book in response to the complaint. Most schools require anyone who objects to curricular materials to submit a written request for review identifying specific objections in the context of each book as a whole. A review committee consisting principally of teachers and school administrators then addresses the complaint and makes a recommendation based on the book’s educational value and interest to students. If it becomes necessary for the school board to review their decision, its members have the benefit of a thorough and thoughtful review of the book conducted by the professionals most familiar with students’ educational needs and interests. Such a process is essential to guard against subjective judgments and to ensure that books are only removed for pedagogically sound and legally sufficient reasons. Materials should never be removed for ideological reasons and never prior to the completion of the review process.
Individual freedom, democracy, and a good education all depend on protecting the right to read, inquire, question, and think for ourselves. We strongly urge you to restore The Bookseller of Kabul to the library and classrooms in Roosevelt High School while its educational value is under review. We are confident that such a review will find that this highly acclaimed book is entirely suitable for high school students.
If we can be of assistance in this matter, please do not hesitate to contact us.