Letter from NCAC, NCTE, ABFFE. AAP, and PEN American Center to Fayetteville Public Schools Superintendent
July 12, 2005
Dr. Bobby C. New
Fayetteville Public Schools
P.O. Box 849
Dear Dr. New:
We are writing to express concern about efforts to censor library books in the Fayetteville School District. According to reports we have received, a parent in your district, Laurie Taylor, is pressing the district to review books in school libraries, to identify those with specific content, and to impose a parental consent requirement on all students. Her efforts apparently follow a successful effort to remove three books on human sexuality and sexual health.
We strongly urge you to resist such efforts. Instead, the district should respect and support the judgments of librarians, teachers and other educators who select library materials based on their professional and educational standards, as well as students’ constitutional right to obtain access to a broad range of materials and ideas, including material that some may find controversial or objectionable.
The task of selecting books for inclusion in school libraries properly belongs to professional educators. Parents may be equipped to make reading choices for their own children, but, no matter how well-intentioned, they simply are not equipped to make decisions that address the needs of the entire district’s student body. The views of Ms. Taylor and others who sought removal of It’s So Amazing, It’s Perfectly Normal, and The Teenage Guy’s Survival Guide, and who are now seeking a district-wide audit, are not shared by all. They have no right to impose their views on others or demand that the district’s libraries reflect their personal preferences.
School officials are bound by constitutional considerations, including a duty not to discriminate against unpopular or controversial ideas. The U.S. Supreme Court has cautioned that, "local school boards may not remove books from library shelves 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 v. Pico, 457 U.S. 853, 872 (1982) (plurality opinion).
This constitutional duty applies with particular force in the school library, which, unlike the classroom, has "a special role as a place where students may freely and voluntarily explore diverse topics." Campbell v. St. Tammany Parish School Board, 64 F.3d 184, 190 (5th Cir. 1995).
It’s So Amazing, It’s Perfectly Normal, and The Teenage Guy’s Survival Guide provide valuable informational resources for children, teenagers and their parents on matters of human sexuality.These books address questions that concern many young people, on topics such as reproduction, masturbation, homosexuality, safe sex, teen pregnancy, and abortion. Limiting young people’s access to legitimate and accurate information will not necessarily quell their curiosity. If anything, it will foster misinformation or ignorance, and leave many woefully unprepared for puberty and beyond.
The district’s earlier decision to remove books has, predictably, only resulted in escalating demands. You are now seeing first hand the common consequence of censorship – it opens the floodgates to unending demands. Thus, Ms. Taylor is now pushing for a district-wide audit to purge all school libraries of all materials that contain "vile and gratuitous sexual premises."
What is "vile and gratuitous," and who is to decide? What constitutes a "sexual premise" for these purposes? The terms are inherently subjective and suspect to multiple different interpretations, and the scope of material potentially affected is vast. The description could be used to disqualify works of William Shakespeare, Nathaniel Hawthorne, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Maya Angelou, and Toni Morrison, among many others. As these examples suggest, the 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., 333 U.S. 203, 235 (1948) (Jackson, J. concurring).
Parents like Laurie Taylor are free to direct their own children’s reading choices, but not to force their values, judgments and preferences on others. We urge you to carefully consider your constitutional responsibility not to censor certain views, facts and ideas, but instead to provide students in your district with access to the range of information and ideas to which their peers around the country are exposed. To do otherwise is to penalize students, whose knowledge of the world and ability to compete in it will be compromised.
For your information, we are enclosing copies of a booklet on school censorship that was produced by the National Coalition Against Censorship in collaboration with the National Education Association. We also suggest you refer to "The Student’s Right to Read," a guideline established by the National Council of Teachers of English and available online at: http://www.ncte.org/about/over/positions/category/cens/107616.htm. We hope these materials will be useful to you and perhaps to teachers and parents involved in this discussion. If we can be of further assistance, please do not hesitate to contact us.
Joan E. Bertin
National Coalition Against Censorship
275 Seventh Avenue, 9th Floor
New York, NY 10001
Communications and Affiliate Services
National Council of Teachers of English
1111 W. Kenyon Road
Urbana, IL 61801
American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression
139 Fulton Street, Suite 302
New York, NY 10038
Patricia S. Schroeder
President & CEO
Association of American Publishers
50 F Street, NW
Washington, D.C. 20001
Freedom to Write and International Programs
PEN American Center
588 Broadway, Suite 303
New York, NY 10012
Steve Percival, President
Fayetteville Board of Education
Howard Hamilton, Vice President
Fayetteville Board of Education
Chris Bell, Secretary
Fayetteville Board of Education
Susan Winborn Heil, Member, Fayetteville Board of Education
Tim Kring, Member, Fayetteville Board of Education
Tim Hudson, Member, Fayetteville Board of Education
Laura Underwood, Member, Fayetteville Board of Education