The Kanawha County School Board in Kanawha County, WV has proposed instituting a rating system for books following a recent controversy over two novels by Pat Conroy. NCAC and five other groups supporting intellectual freedom submitted the following letter to the Charleston Gazette :
To the Editors:
Kanawha County School Board may have already violated the First Amendment rights of its students and their parents by banning Pat Conroy’s The Prince of Tides and Beach Music. The board’s recent proposal to adopt a rating system for books compounds the problem. Such a system would impose impractical and arbitrary standards for selecting educational materials and create a chilling effect limiting what students read.
Single-letter ratings, such as the board proposes, are inherently reductive and subjective. Novels and other complex materials can’t be described by a letter, and it would be impossible to ensure that materials are rated consistently. For example, does a single instance of profanity warrant an “L” (for “language) rating, or is it 10 instances, or 100? Would the violence in the Bible or Shakespeare require a “V” label? What would be the criteria for labeling something “mature” content?
The effort to apply ratings will inevitably place an overwhelming burden on schools and educators. Even deciding who would do the rating raises problems. There is no way to ensure that different individuals will judge things the same way. Moreover, such a policy would leave the district vulnerable to multiple, possibly conflicting objections to how material is rated, and make the district vulnerable to continuing controversies and potentially even legal challenges.
The current policy is more than sufficient. Parents who object to a particular book may request an alternative assignment. Instead of rating books, the school board should encourage teachers to explain to parents how and why they select certain materials and what educational purposes these materials serve for their children. Focusing on the educational criteria for curricular selections would provide a meaningful, sound and defensible way to evaluate books.
Joan Bertin, Executive Director, National Coalition Against Censorship
Chris Finan, President, American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression
Kent Williamson, National Council of Teachers of English
Judith Platt, Director, Freedom to Read, Association of American Publishers
Larry Siems, PEN American Center