Dr. Lee D. McCaskill
Brooklyn Technical High School
29 Fort Greene Place
Brooklyn, NY 11217
Re: Todd Friedman
Dear Dr. McCaskill:
As you undoubtedly are aware, my organization and a number of other First Amendment groups have been concerned about the fact that a teacher at your school, Todd Friedman, was disciplined last year after a parent complained about sexual content in Russell Banks’ novel Continental Drift.
It is gratifying that the discipline letter has been removed from Mr. Friedman’s file. However, we are still concerned about the status of Continental Drift, and how the decision to approve or exclude this novel and other materials will be made at Brooklyn Tech.
In your May 12 letter to Mr. Friedman, you indicate that you have "developed a method for selecting and approving reading materials for all classes at Brooklyn Tech," which I assume refers to your May 12 memo to staff on "Supplemental Reading Materials Classroom Libraries." That memo states that "[f]aculty may not use literature to promote political, religious or other personal beliefs. In the selection of non approved material, sexually explicit material may not be distributed to students."
Unfortunately, this policy only heightens our concerns. First, the policy bars books with specific types of content. This contravenes the basic First Amendment rule prohibiting discrimination on the basis of content or viewpoint and chills protected expression. Moreover, it is vague, subjective, and over-inclusive. Virtually all literature promotes personal beliefs. For example, students recently read the poem Somebody Blew Up America, a poem that can only be fully understood in a political context. Sexual content is also not a permissible ground to bar books at the high school level; otherwise, students would be unable to read Romeo and Juliet and Secrets, which was assigned recently apparently without complaint.
It is standard to appoint a committee to review complaints about books, but it is highly unusual to require teachers, especially at the high school level, to obtain prior approval to assign a respected novel as supplemental reading. Such a requirement is time-consuming and plainly chills the selection process. It also provides an opportunity for harassment, which in this situation is a serious concern, given the number and nature of the grievances still pending at Brooklyn Tech.
In sum, even though Mr. Friedman’s grievance has technically been resolved, the censorship issue which was at the heart of the situation has not been solved, and actually seems to have gotten worse. The current policy institutionalizes the problem and invites continued dissension and controversy.
The vast majority of high schools in New York City educate their students without violating students’ and teachers’ First Amendment right to read and speak freely and to explore a wide range of materials and ideas. There is no reason why Brooklyn Tech should not do likewise.
Joan E. Bertin
National Coalition Against Censorship
American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression
Director, Freedom to Write and International Programs
PEN American Center
Joel Klein, Chancellor, NYC Department of Education
Randi Weingarten, President, UFT
Reyes Irizarry, Superintendent, Brooklyn and Staten Island High Schools
Judy E. Nathan, First Deputy Council, NYC Dept. of Education
Deborah Karpatkin, Esq.
Judith Krug, Director, ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom
Charles Suhor, National Council of Teachers of English