Dr. Crystal Sisler, Principal
Mandarin High School
4831 Greenland Road
Jacksonville, FL 32258
March 16, 2007
Dear Dr. Sisler:
We write to express concern about objections to Vegan Virgin Valentine by Carolyn Mackler, which is in the school library at Mandarin High School. We understand that a few parents have objected to certain language in the book and, at minimum, want the school to require parental permission before students can check it out. According to recent news reports, they have initiated a district review process to assess the book’s “appropriateness.”
The task of selecting school library materials properly belongs to professional librarians and 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 for others. Without questioning the sincerity of those seeking to place restrictions on 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 library policies reflect their personal preferences.
While no book is appropriate for all readers, the decision to read a book should be made by students, guided by the values embraced by their own families. Vegan Virgin Valentine is in fact recommended for many readers. According to the School Library Journal, the book presents “the universal theme of growing up and figuring out what’s important” and notes that “[t]his title will have strong appeal for teens grappling with these same questions.” In addition, readers have said, “the book inspired me to be myself,” that it speaks “about a family and their everyday life with family problems and how to deal with those problems,” and that the story has “a lot of similarities to my own life.”
School officials are bound by constitutional considerations, including a duty not to give in to pressure to suppress unpopular ideas or controversial language. The Supreme Court has cautioned that, "[l]ocal school boards may not remove books from library shelves simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books and seek by their removal to ‘prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion.’" Board of Education v. Pico, 457 U.S. 853, 872 (1982)(plurality opinion). This constitutional duty applies with particular force in the school library, which, unlike the classroom, has "a special role…as a place where students may freely and voluntarily explore diverse topics." Campbell v. St. Tammany Parish School Board, 64 F. 3d 184, 190 (5th Cir. 1995).
"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 of William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Russell Banks, Piri Thomas, and Richard Wright, to name but a few.
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). Moreover, the practical effect of acceding to any request to restrict access to materials will be to invite others to demand changes to reflect their beliefs and to leave school officials vulnerable to multiple, possibly conflicting, demands.
We strongly urge you to keep Vegan Virgin Valentine in the library at Mandarin High School. Parents who object to this book are entitled to their view, but not to impose it on others. They have no constitutional right to restrict all students’ access to a library book because it conflicts with their personal values; but neither do they or their children have to read it. We urge you to stand by the principle that is so essential to individual freedom, democracy, and a good education: the right to read, inquire, question, and think for ourselves.
If we can be of assistance in this matter, please do not hesitate to call us at (212) 807-6222.
|Joan Bertin||Chris Finan||Fran Manushkin and Susan Kuklin|
|Executive Director||President||Co-Chairs, Children’s Book Authors Committee|
|National Coalition Against Censorship||American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression||PEN American Center|
» Read local news coverage of the case
» Read the joint letter to the Duval County Superintendent