Joint Letter to Appling County Board of Ed. Urging Return of Censored Classics, Of Mice and Men, Brave New World, and Native Son
Board of Education
Appling County Schools
249 Blackshear Highway
Baxley, GA 31513 July 16, 2008
Dear Members of the Board of Education:
We write to encourage you to reconsider your decision to remove the books, Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, Native Son by Richard Wright, and Brave New World by Alodus Huxley, from classrooms in Appling County Schools. We understand that your action was taken in response to a complaint filed by a local minister objecting to language in Of Mice and Men and Native Son, and that two committees of educators reviewed the books and recommended that they be kept in high school classrooms. We also understand that the board banned Brave New World without first going through the normal complaint procedures, in violation of district policy.
All three books are highly acclaimed, seminal works of American fiction and have long been used for instruction in schools across the country. If these books are deemed “unsuitable,” the same could be said of a vast body of important literature, including works by Shakespeare, major religious texts such as the Bible, the works of Flaubert, Joyce, Faulkner, and Twain, 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 Georgia. As these examples suggest, any 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. (1948) (Jackson, J. concurring). Indeed, the school district puts all students at an educational disadvantage, and puts college-bound students at a particular disadvantage, by not introducing 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, and religious leaders may be equipped to make recommendations to their congregants, 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 who object to the books, their views are not shared by all, and they have no right to impose those views on others or to 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 individual 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.
In this case, the school board has banned all three books against the advice of professional educators and on the basis of the complaint of a local church leader – moreover, one who has no children in the school. Meanwhile, parents who do have students in the class are eager for their students to study these books and have signed permission slips to express their support of the material. No pedagogical or educational rationale has been advanced for the board’s decision, which appears to rest solely on the desire to accommodate the demands of a religious leader. As such, it is constitutionally suspect and exposes the board to potential legal liability.
We strongly urge you to return Of Mice and Men, Native Son, and Brave New World to Appling County classrooms.
If we can be of assistance in this matter, please do not hesitate to contact us.
National Coalition Against Censorship
American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression
Chara Fisher Jackson
ACLU of Georgia
Appling High School English Department Head, Mary Ann Ellis, speaks out against the books’ removal. Read her Op-Ed in the Baxley News-Banner.