Dear Superintendent Micek and Members of the Book Review Committee:
We write to express concern about efforts to remove Whale Talk by Chris Crutcher from the tenth grade English curriculum in Missouri Valley High School. We understand that the book has been challenged because of objections to language.
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 seeking removal of the book, 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 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 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). It likewise follows that any plan to identify "objectionable" books in 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.
In addition, we are concerned that in the short time between the appointment of the book review committee and the committee’s meeting, all members may not have had time to read the book in its entirety. When challenges to classroom materials arise, the only reasonable and judicious approach for committee members to take is to read the challenged work, themselves. It is unfair to expect committee members to assess the value of a book which they have not yet read.
We strongly urge you to keep these books 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||Chris Finan|