UPDATED: Harford County’s school superintendent reverses decision and The Chocolate War is returned to classrooms (Baltimore Sun, 11/20/07)

Jacqueline C. Haas, Superintendent
Harford County Public Schools
102 S. Hickory Avenue
Bel Air, MD 21014

April 18, 2007

Dear Superintendent Haas and Members of the School Board:

We write to express our concern about the recent removal of The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier from the ninth grade Social Studies curriculum.  We understand that parents challenged this award-winning book because they objected to language, sexual content, and references to homosexuality.

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 book, 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 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. "Objectionable language" is a broad and subjective category, open to a wide range of interpretations, encompassing virtually anything. Even narrowing the definition to language normally deemed "vulgar" or "profane" would disqualify works by William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Russell Banks, Piri Thomas, and Richard Wright, to name but a few.

The Chocolate War is well regarded by parents, teachers, librarians, and young readers alike, and it has been showered with numerous awards including the prestigious American Library Association’s Margaret A. Edwards Award, which referred to it as “brilliantly crafted” and one of the “classics in young adult literature.”  In addition, The New York Times Book Review described the 1974 novel as “masterfully structured and rich in theme.”  This thought-provoking book addresses questions and themes relevant to some students, regardless of whether all parents choose to acknowledge the fact.

As these examples suggest, the 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., 333 U.S. 203, 235 (1948) (Jackson, J. concurring). It likewise follows that removing "objectionable" books from the curriculum is legally unnecessary and misguided on practical and educational grounds.  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 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. 

We strongly urge you to restore this book to ninth grade 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.

For your information, we are enclosing copies of a booklet on school censorship that was produced by the National Coalition Against Censorship 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.  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.


Joan Bertin Chris Finan
Executive Director President
National Coalition Against Censorship American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression
Kent Williamson Judith Platt
Executive Director Director, Freedom to Read
National Council of Teachers of English Association of American Publishers
Judith Krug Larry Siems
Director, Office for Intellectual Freedom Director, Freedom to Read and International Programs
American Library Association PEN American Center






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