We also sent a second message, intended to address assertions that the board would only address policy at their meeting on December 9, 2013 and was not "banning a book."
Dear Mr. Woosltenhulme and Members of the Board,
An article in yesterday’s Teton Valley News requires a clarification of our previous letter dated Dec. 5, 2013. The article reports that district policies, rather than the recent removal of Bless Me, Ultima, will be the focus of Monday night’s meeting.
The article quotes School Board President Doug Petersen as saying that “we will not dictate curriculum” and that “[w]e are not talking about banning a book.” However, that is in fact exactly what has happened. Superintendent Woolstenhulme removed the book, publicly stating that he had not read the book.
The Board can hardly duck the question of whether the book should have been removed by saying that its role is to set policy. The two issues are irrevocably intertwined in this case: the removal of the book is not only constitutionally suspect under the First Amendment, as already noted, but also contravenes District Policy 2540: “Curricular materials may be removed when they no longer meet the criteria for initial selection, when they are worn out, or when they have been judged inappropriate through the Learning Materials Review Process.”To our knowledge, none of the conditions for removal existed in this case, and no review process was initiated. Thus, the Superintendent’s peremptory action in taking the book out of classrooms cannot be sanctioned under existing policy. This deviation from the district’s own policies and procedures raises independent due process concerns. Even if the district were to reconsider and adopt new policy, such an action would not affect the validity of the actions at issue here.
As stated previously, there was no legitimate pedagogical basis for removal of the book, not only because of the undisputed literary and educational value of the book, but also because of the Superintendent’s admission that he acted without even reading the book to assess its educational merit and without convening a review committee to do so. His action violated a basic tenet of the First Amendment: “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion or other matters of opinion.” West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette (1943).
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) (rejecting challenge to books based on racial content, and recognizing the First Amendment right of students to read books selected for their “legitimate educational value”), Parker v. Hurley (1st Cir. 2008) (rejected 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).
We urge you to reinstate Bless Me, Ultima without delay as there is no legitimate basis for its removal.
Acacia O’Connor, Coordinator, Kids’ Right to Read Project
On behalf of Joan Bertin, Executive Director, National Coalition Against Censorship; Chris Finan, President, American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression; Charles Brownstein, Executive Director, Comic Book Legal Defense Fund; Judy Platt, Association of American Publishers.