Joint Letter to Huntsville City Board of Ed. Opposing Removal of A Lesson Before Dying


Board of Education
Huntsville City Schools
200 White Street
Huntsville, AL 35801                                                                            August 8, 2008

Dear Members of the Board of Education:

We write to oppose efforts to remove the book, A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest Gaines, from the Huntsville City Schools ninth grade required summer reading list.  We understand that two parents objected to sexual content and profanity in the book and have asked that it be removed from the list.  We also understand that as a result of the challenge, the school board is reviewing the book to see if it should be made optional reading, not required, and that Principal Tom Drake at Grissom High School has offered an alternative assignment to those who object to the book.

A Lesson Before Dying is a highly acclaimed work of American fiction that addresses racism and racial identity in a rural 1940s Louisiana community.  Precluding students from reading literature with sexual references and language that some find objectionable would deprive them of exposure to vast amounts of important material, including works by Shakespeare, major religious texts such as the Bible, the works of Steinbeck, Hemingway, Wright, and Fitzgerald, contemporary books such as The Bluest Eye and The Things They Carried, and many of the texts regularly assigned in high schools throughout the State of Alabama.  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 would put all students at an educational disadvantage, particularly those who are college-bound, 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 familiar with students’ pedagogical needs and interests.  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 class.  Without questioning the sincerity of those who object to 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 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.  The normal response to a parent or student who objects to a particular assignment is to offer an alternative assignment, as Principal Drake has done.  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.

We strongly urge you to stand by the experience and expertise of your district’s English teachers and keep A Lesson Before Dying on the required summer reading list in Huntsville City Schools.  
If we can be of assistance in this matter, please do not hesitate to contact us. 

Joan Bertin                                                    Chris Finan                  
Executive Director                                         President
National Coalition Against Censorship          American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression



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