UPDATED: Superintendent Messinger informs us that Fool’s Crow has been kept in the curriculum!

Bruce K. Messinger, Ph.D.
Helena Public Schools
55 South Rodney
Helena, MT 59601
[email protected]

April 13, 2007

Dear Superintendent Messinger and Members of the Board of Trustees:

We write to oppose efforts to remove the book, Fools Crow by James Welch, from Helena High School’s sophomore English curriculum.  We understand the book has been challenged by a parent because it contains violent and sexual content, and that a public hearing will be held on Monday, April 16th, 2007 to discuss whether or not the book should be removed from the curriculum.

Fools Crow
is a powerful historical novel which has already been through the district’s review process, has met the state standards for teaching, and has been taught in 10th grade English classes throughout the State of Montana for several years.  The violence and sexual content in the book 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 such 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 William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Russell Banks, Piri Thomas, and Richard Wright, and many of the texts regularly assigned in high schools throughout the country.  Indeed, 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 task of selecting readings for the curriculum properly belongs to professional educators. Parents may be equipped to make 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 student body. Without questioning the sincerity of those seeking removal of the books, their views are not shared by all, and they have no right to impose those views on others or demand that the educational program reflect their personal preferences.

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). Thus, 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).

The practical effect of acceding to any parent’s request to censor materials will be to invite others to demand changes in the curriculum to reflect their beliefs and to leave school officials vulnerable to multiple, possibly conflicting, demands.  The most satisfactory way of handling situations in which a parent or student objects to a particular assignment is to offer the opportunity to request an alternative assignment.  This addresses the concerns of those who seek to limit their exposure to certain words and ideas, without infringing the rights of the many others who are eager for a more inclusive and expansive education.

The complaining parent says she would be satisfied with an alternative reading assignment for her son; however the school district says it never offered him one because he never asked.  Under these circumstances, this situation might well be resolved without a public hearing, given that a meeting between the teacher, the parent and the student would address all the concerns and offer an appropriate solution that does not embroil the district in a censorship controversy or threaten the rights of other students.

The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) recommends that when a parent has a complaint about material in the curriculum, the most effective first step is to arrange a meeting between the parent and the teacher.  In that meeting, the teacher can present the parent with a rationale in defense of the book’s place in the curriculum and offer to assign an alternative reading assignment, should the parent remain dissatisfied.  If this proves insufficient, the parent may then take the challenge to the Board of Education, and thus open the matter up to public discussion.

We suggest that you re-examine the current policies you have in place for dealing with challenged books and hope that our policy suggestions will help you to handle challenges to educational materials such as this one in the future.  In the meantime, we strongly urge you to keep the book in 10th grade English classrooms.  In our experience, controversies of this sort are best handled by enriching the curriculum, not restricting it, and by including additional voices rather than silencing any. 

If we can be of assistance in this matter, please do not hesitate to call us at (212) 807-6222. 

Joan Bertin
Executive Director
National Coalition Against Censorship

Chris Finan
American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression