Following a challenge by one student’s parents to How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez for sexual content, a review committee voted to keep the book in school libraries and classrooms. However, a district committee voted to remove the book from Johnston County, NC, schools. In addition, the district is now using lists of challenged books to "weed out" potentially offensive material.
Below is NCAC’s Letter to the Board of Education.
Dr. Anthony L. Parker, Superintendent
Members of the Board of Education
Johnston County Schools
2320 US 70 Business East
PO Box 1336
Smithfield, NC 27577-1336
December 21, 2007
Dear Dr. Parker and Members of the Johnston County Schools Board of Education:
We are deeply concerned by the recent banning of the book, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez, in the Johnston County Schools. We understand that the book was removed following complaints about the book’s sexual content. It was then reviewed by a school committee which recommended that it be retained, and by a district committee, which recommended its removal. We also understand that, in the wake of this controversy, the school board has instructed administrators to check all books in high school libraries and classrooms against lists of commonly challenged books as a means of removing “offensive” material.
The sexual content and themes in How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents represent essential parts of the novel, consistent with the kind of material that high school students frequently read. If students were precluded from reading literature with sexual content, they would be deprived of exposure to vast amounts of important material, including Shakespeare, major religious texts such as the Bible, the works of Tolstoy, Flaubert, Joyce, Faulkner, D.H. Lawrence, and Nabokov, and contemporary books such as I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Beloved, and many of the texts regularly assigned in high schools throughout the State of North Carolina. The school district would potentially put its students at an educational disadvantage in college if it did not introduce them to literature of this sort in high school.
The views of the parents who object to the book are not shared by others, and banning the book violates their First Amendment rights and those of their children. As many courts have observed, public schools have the 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). 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 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).
Taking the additional step of reviewing books based solely on the fact that they have been previously challenged would only compound the problem. Book challenges typically raise objections to isolated words, scenes or passages, which are often taken out of context. Objectors rarely consider the works taken as a whole, their pedagogical value, or the historical and literary framework in which they were written. In many situations, challenged books are retained after appropriate review and consideration of the schools’ First Amendment obligations.
Focusing on the educational criteria for curricular or library selections provides the only meaningful, sound and defensible way to evaluate books. As a practical matter, removing a book because a parent objects to specific language or ideas invariably leaves schools vulnerable to multiple, possibly conflicting demands from other parents who object to different kinds of material. Some parents object to sexual content, while others oppose books with violence, racial language, religious references, etc. The normal response to a parent or student who objects to a particular assignment is to offer an alternative assignment. This addresses the concerns of those who object to certain words and ideas, without infringing the rights of the many others who are eager for a more inclusive and expansive education.
For your information, we are enclosing copies of a booklet on school censorship that was produced by the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) 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. In addition, NCAC offers an online Guide to the First Amendment in Schools, available at: /education/schools/. 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.
National Coalition Against Censorship
American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression
Director, Freedom to Write and International Programs
PEN American Center