The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky was banned from ninth grade classrooms at Portage High School in Portage, IN, in late November 2008. The book was challenged by one parent who objected to sexual content in the novel, and the school board decided to remove the book from the curriculum. In response to an article published in the school newspaper, the Pow Wow, which reported on the review process for The Perks of Being a Wallflower, school administrators imposed a new policy requiring that all future newspaper content be subject to prior review. In December 2008, the Kids’ Right to Read Project sent a letter to the school board and superintendent opposing the banning of the book and the new prior review policy for the newspaper.
Superintendent Michael J. Berta
Board of School Trustees
Portage Township Schools
6240 U.S. Highway 6
Portage, IN 46368
December 22, 2008
Dear Superintendent Berta and Members of the Portage Township Board of School Trustees,
We are deeply concerned by your recent decision to ban the book, The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, from ninth grade classrooms at Portage High School. We understand that the book was challenged by one parent who objected to sexual content in the novel, and that the school board decided to remove the book from the curriculum. We also understand that, in response to an article published in the school newspaper, the Pow Wow, which reported on the review process for The Perks of Being a Wallflower, school administrators imposed a new policy requiring that all future newspaper content be subject to prior review. In our view, both situations raise serious First Amendment concerns.
The views of the parent who objects to the book are not shared by all, and in acceding to the parent’s demand and banning the book, you necessarily deny other students and parents equivalent rights. Moreover, the complaining parent has no enforceable right to have the book removed. 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). No parent has the right “to tell a public school what his or her child will and will not be taught” (Id.), or “a fundamental right generally to direct how a public school teaches their child.” Blau v. Fort Thomas Public School District, et al, 401 F.3d 381, 395 (6th Cir. 2005). 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 Littlefield v. Forney Independent School District, 268 F.3d 275, 291 (5th Cir. 2001); Fields v. Palmdale School District, 427 F.3d 1197, 1207 (9th Cir. 2005), amended by 447 F.3d 1187 (9th Cir. 2006).
If students were precluded from reading literature with sexual content, they would be deprived of exposure to vast amounts of important material, including Shakespeare, major religious texts such as the Bible, the works of Tolstoy, Flaubert, Joyce, Faulkner, D.H. Lawrence, and Nabokov, and contemporary books such as I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Beloved, and many of the texts regularly assigned in high schools throughout the State of Indiana. The school district would potentially put its students at an educational disadvantage in college if it did not introduce them to literature of this sort in high school. The school can serve the needs and respect the rights and preferences of the whole student body, not by banning a book because some parents dislike it, but by offering alternative assignments to objecting parents, where appropriate.
The concerns raised by the decision to remove the book have been compounded by the school’s punitive response to an article in the school paper about the incident. The decision to require approval before articles can be published plainly creates a chilling effect on speech. Professional journalism associations, including the Journalism Education Association (JEA) and the Student Press Law Center (SPLC) strongly oppose prior review as a matter of principle, calling it “illogical, journalistically inappropriate and educationally unsound.”
To our knowledge, no legitimate, educational rationale has been advanced to justify the new policy, which plainly appears to have been motivated by a desire to suppress discussion of the book-banning incident and possible criticism of the school’s decision. However, that is not a valid justification for the action against the paper. The article addressed an issue of genuine importance to the school community and provided information and an appropriate forum for discussion, the hallmark of both education and democracy. Anyone who objected to the article could express their views through a letter to the editors. Any legitimate concerns about the paper’s journalistic practices and standards can and should be addressed through the involvement of a faculty advisor.
In choosing to adopt a policy of prior review, you have discouraged students from discussing important issues like the right to read, and teach through your actions that you think it is acceptable to silence speech with which you disagree. This is precisely the opposite of what the First Amendment stands for.
We strongly urge you to return The Perks of Being a Wallflower to Portage High School classrooms and to refrain from imposing prior review on the school newspaper. Individual freedom, democracy, and a good education all depend on protecting free speech and a free press, and the right to read, inquire, question, and think for ourselves.
If we can be of assistance, please do not hesitate to contact us.
"Expert claims school is violating rights," Post-Tribune, November 26, 2008