Dear Members of the Tuscaloosa Board of Education:
We write to oppose efforts to remove the book, Sandpiper by Ellen Wittlinger from the Brookwood High School Library. We understand that the book has been challenged by a student’s grandmother who objects to the book’s sexual content. We also understand that a committee made up of a media specialist, parent, principal and two professional educators has reviewed the book and recommended its return to the library. We urge you to defer to the committee’s expertise and follow their advice to keep the book on the shelves, available to all.
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. Sandpiper is in fact recommended for many readers. The book is on the Young Adult Library Services Association’s Best Books for Young Adults list of 2006. In its review of the book, School Library Journal has said, “the novel is notable for the bold look it takes at relationships and at the myth that oral sex is not really sex.” A reviewer in Booklist, an American Library Association magazine, says, “Wittlinger takes on tough teen issues with candor, humanity, humor, and grace.”
The task of selecting school library materials properly belongs to professional librarians and educators. The Board did the right thing in assembling a team of specialists to review this material using their educational expertise. Now, we urge you to trust the committee’s recommendation and not allow one parent to impose her views on others or demand that the library policies reflect her personal preferences. 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.
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).
Furthermore, 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.
Some parents prefer to keep their children from reading about sex; others may strongly disapprove of teen sexual activity and still not censor their children’s reading. Some parents appreciate books like Sandpiper, because they can create opportunities for adults and teens to talk about sensitive topics. Even if the novel’s themes are too mature for some students, they will be meaningful to others. No book is right for everyone, and the role of the library is to allow students to make choices according to their own interests, experiences, and family values. No one has to read something just because it’s on the library shelf.
We strongly urge you to follow the review committee’s recommendation to keep Sandpiper in the library at Brookwood High School. Those who object to this book are entitled to their view, but they may not 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 contact us.
National Coalition Against Censorship
American Booksellers Foundation for Freedom of Expression