Superintendent Steve McDermott
and Members of the Reconsideration Committee
807 6th Ave W.
Newton, IA 50208
[email protected]  

April 16, 2007

Dear Superintendent McDermott and Members of the Reconsideration Committee:

We write to oppose efforts to remove the book, Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, from Newton High School’s required reading list and to suggest certain amendments to your current policies regarding book challenges.  We understand the book has been challenged by a student and his parent because of language which offends their religious convictions, and that they have requested an alternative reading assignment.  We also understand that the reconsideration committee is meeting to determine whether or not to remove the book from the school’s American Literature curriculum.

Of Mice and Men
is a seminal work of American fiction by a Nobel Prize-winning author.   The book’s gritty portrayal of the life of early 20th Century migrant workers in America, and the complex relationship between the novel’s two main characters, George and Lenny, has been adapted into movies, plays, operas and even cartoons. Of Mice and Men has long been used for instruction in schools across the country and throughout Iowa and is consistently listed as a favorite book of students.  Indeed, 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 task of selecting readings for the curriculum properly belongs to professional 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 that address the needs of the entire student body. Without questioning the sincerity of those seeking removal of the books, 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 parent’s 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. 
The most satisfactory way of handling situations in which a parent or student objects to a particular assignment is to offer the opportunity to request 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.

The complaining parent and student have requested an alternative reading assignment.   Under these circumstances, this situation might well be resolved without the need for a committee to reconsider the book, given that a meeting between the teacher, the parent and the student would address all the concerns and offer an appropriate solution that does not embroil the district in a censorship controversy or threaten the rights of other students.

The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) recommends that when a parent has a complaint about material in the curriculum, the most effective first step is to arrange a meeting between the parent and the teacher.   In that meeting, the teacher can present the parent with a rationale in defense of the book’s place in the curriculum and offer to assign an alternative reading assignment, should the parent remain dissatisfied.  If this proves insufficient, the parent may then take the challenge to the Board of Education, and thus open the matter up to public discussion.

We suggest that you re-examine the current policies you have in place for dealing with challenged books and hope that our policy suggestions will help you to handle challenges to educational materials such as this one in the future.  In the meantime, we strongly urge you to offer an alternative reading assignment and to keep the book in the classroom and on the required reading list.  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
Executive Director
National Coalition Against Censorship