NEW YORK, NY, March 1, 2007 — The American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE) and the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) today condemned the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan for asking the Federal Bureau of Investigation to investigate a complaint that books used in the public schools of Howell, Michigan, are obscene. The complaint was filed by a woman who was unsuccessful in persuading the Howell Board of Education to remove several books that she dislikes, including Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Richard Wright’s Black Boy, and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. “It is absolutely bizarre that a high official in the Justice Department would take such a step. Under the law, the books cannot be found obscene if they have literary merit, which in this case cannot reasonably be questioned,” NCAC Executive Director Joan Bertin said. ABFFE President Chris Finan said that U.S. Attorney Stephen J. Murphy III had abdicated his responsibility to protect free speech. “We are told that Murphy ‘routinely’ refers all obscenity complaints to the FBI. But he has a duty to reject frivolous claims to ensure that there is no chilling effect on books that are protected by the First Amendment,” Finan said. He added that Murphy has been nominated to a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals. “This is not the kind of judgment we expect from a man who has been nominated for a seat on one of our highest courts,” Finan said.
The challenged books are used in 11th grade English class in Howell and many other schools around the country. On February 12, the Howell Board of Education voted 5-2 to retain the books challenged by the Livingston Organization for Values in Education (LOVE), a group of parents and other community members that charged that the books are inappropriate for minors because they contain sexual themes and profanity. When the LOVE challenge failed, one of its members, Vicki Fyke, filed a complaint with the Livingston County prosecutor, the Attorney General of Michigan and the U.S. Attorney alleging that the Morison, Wright and Vonnegut books are legally obscene and also violate the laws against child pornography and child sexual abuse. (The Bluest Eye describes the rape of a child.) LOVE also asked for a ruling on the legality of Augusten Burroughs’ Running with Scissors, another book used in the Howell schools.
Newspapers in the Detroit area confirmed today that Murphy had referred the books to the FBI. “Absolutely. We’re looking into it,” Gina Bilaya, a spokesman for Murphy’s office, told the Daily Press & Argus. “We do it with all complaints,” she said. The local prosecutor and the Michigan Attorney General are also reported to be conducting investigations.
In early February, ABFFE and NCAC joined a number of free speech advocates in sending a letter to the school board opposing the censorship of the books targeted by LOVE. A copy of the letter is online here.
Founded in 1974, NCAC is an alliance of 50 national non-profit organizations, including literary, artistic, religious, educational, professional, labor, and civil liberties groups. ABFFE is the bookseller’s voice in the fight against censorship. It was founded in 1990 by the American Booksellers Association.