Night Talk by Elizabeth Cox was challenged in fall 2008 for its sexual content by one parent who requested that the book be removed from the library at South Gwinnett High School. A school-based committee denied the request in November 2008 and decided to keep the book in the library.
The Kids’ Right to Read Project sent a letter to the System Review Committee and Assistant Superintendent for Teaching and Learning, opposing the challenges:
Mr. Dale Robbins, Associate Superintendent for Teaching and Learning
Members of the System Review Committee
Gwinnett County Public Schools
437 Old Peachtree Road, NW
Suwanee, GA 30024
January 28, 2009
Dear Mr. Robbins and Members of the System Review Committee,
We write to oppose efforts by one parent to remove the book, Night Talk by Elizabeth Cox, from the library at South Gwinnett High School. We understand that the parent objects to sexual content in the book. We also understand that a school-based committee reviewed the book and decided to keep it in the library.
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). Many other courts have recognized that the First Amendment right of access to information is particularly applicable in the library setting. See, e.g., Counts v. Cedarville School District (W.D. Ark. 2003) and Sund v. City of Wichita Falls (N.D. Tex. 2000).
Night Talk is primarily concerned not with sexual themes, but instead with the important message of tolerance; the book is a historical novel about a decades-long friendship across racial boundaries beginning in the segregated South of the 1950s. Night Talk should be evaluated as a whole work, rather than reduced to isolated passages that some may find objectionable. Even if the novel’s themes are too mature for some students, they will be meaningful to others. 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 is on the library shelf.
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 the parent who objects to the book, her views are not shared by all, and she has no right to impose those views on others or to demand that the library policies reflect her personal preferences. 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.
We strongly urge you to keep Night Talk in the library at South Gwinnett High School. The parent who objects to the book is entitled to her views, but she may not impose it on others. She has no constitutional right to restrict all students’ access to a library book because it conflicts with her personal values, but neither does she or her child have to read it. Individual freedom, democracy, and a good education all depend on protecting free speech and 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.
National Coalition Against Censorship
American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression
"Snellville mother wants book banned from school," Atlanta Journal-Constitution, January 9, 2009