Letter Opposing Censorship of Ten Little Indians

UPDATE: Play reinstated! Read the Superintendent’s Statement

November 29, 2007

Dear Members of the Lakota Board of Education:

We write to oppose the recent censorship of Ten Little Indians by Agatha Christie at Lakota East High School.  We understand the play was challenged by Gary Hines of the NAACP because of the racially sensitive language of its 1939 U.K. edition title, and consequently, school administrators cancelled the play.

Ten Little Indians is a popular murder mystery which has been performed at high schools across the country.  Its content, consistent with the kind of material that high school students frequently read and perform, has nothing to do with race.  The play’s original title, a variation on the 19th century nursery rhyme which provides the play’s structure, does display the author’s ignorance towards the racism inherent in one of its words. However, most contemporary readers are not aware of the earlier title and the play itself contains nothing that could offend racial sensitivities.

This overreaction does not serve the school’s educational goals nor does it teach tolerance and respect for race, ethnicity or cultural difference.  In agreeing to Mr. Hines’ request to censor the play, the school administrators have sent a message to students that the best way to deal with difficult speech is to avoid it, and they have set a dangerous precedent.

If an Agatha Christie murder mystery is a problem, then works which deal with genuinely disturbing racial issues would be unthinkable. Yet, it is racial language and themes in literature and dramatic works that create valuable opportunities for educators and parents to prepare students to deal with difficult subjects. Such material must always be viewed as a whole and within the particular historical framework in which it was written, not as isolated words, quotations and passages taken out of context.

If students were precluded from confronting racially sensitive content, they would be deprived of exposure to vast amounts of important material including works by William Shakespeare, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, Mark Twain, and other esteemed writers.  In fact, complaints against literature with racial content are frequently directed against writers from racial or ethnic groups who write about their life experiences, such as August Wilson, Suzan Lori-Parks, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Piri Thomas, Richard Wright, and many others.  If works were excluded on this basis, not only would the  school district put its students at an educational disadvantage, but it would also deprive students of exposure to works that draw on the distinctive history and cultural experiences of those groups.   

Furthermore, the practical effect of acceding to any individual’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.

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 individual 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).

We strongly urge you to stand by First Amendment principles by allowing the play to be performed. If there are any lingering concerns about the original title of the play, we encourage you to use this opportunity to open a dialogue about diversity and racism. In our experience, controversies of this sort are best handled 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


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November 7, 2007

To the members of the Shelby County Board of Education:

I am a proud senior at Oak Mountain High School.  On August 16, 2007, I was forced to remove my shirt that read “Widespread Hemp / Don’t Panic, It’s Hemp” and told to never wear it again.  After I questioned the reasoning for this ruling, Mr. Vines explained to me that because the shirt promoted hemp, which he stated is associated with marijuana, that it would be promoting a product prohibited by school policy and therefore, unlawful according to Section O. of Dress Code Policy on page 13 of the Shelby County Code of Conduct.  Unfortunately, there is a common misconception that hemp is marijuana, although they are two different genetic variants of the species Cannabis Sativa L.; just as a wolf and a Chihuahua are genetic variants of the species Canis Lupus.  I will try to make my point brief, although the issue is complex, as I know your time is limited and valuable.

The message on my shirt refers to industrial hemp, not to marijuana.  The shirt’s reference to industrial hemp is obvious, not only by the fact that the shirt itself is woven of hemp fiber (the possession of which is entirely legal in the United States of America), but most importantly, because of its message of “Don’t Panic, It’s Hemp” on the back of the shirt.  This phrase could be correctly translated as “Don’t Worry, This Shirt Is Made Of Hemp” meaning that the production of the shirt did not harm the environment, for example, by the use of pesticides, as cotton does, but instead the shirt is woven of a material that is recyclable, sustainable, and biodegradable.  Because the message on the shirt promotes industrial hemp, a product that is not prohibited by school policy, it cannot be included in Section O. of the Dress Code Policy, and therefore, I believe the wearing of the shirt at my school is entirely lawful. 

I strongly support industrial hemp because of its economical and environmental benefits and see my shirt as a tool to educate by engaging discussion on the issue.  I cannot understand this attempt to silence such education in the educational facility of Oak Mountain High School.  The banning of my shirt is not only a violation of my freedom of speech, including political speech, ensured to me by the First Amendment and affirmed in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, 393 U.S. 503, 89 S.Ct. 733, 21 L.Ed.2d. 731 (1969), but also unlawful according to page 3 of the Shelby County Code of Conduct which states that students have the right “To form and express viewpoints through speaking and writing in a manner which is not obscene, slanderous, libelous, or disruptive to the educational process.”  The political speech printed on my shirt is in no way obscene, slanderous, libelous, or disruptive.  Unlike the recent Supreme Court Case of Morse vs. Frederick, which limited student’s freedom of speech, my message does not in any way promote illegal drug use. 

I originally appealed Mr. Vines’ ruling to the Administrative Team, who decided to delegate the decisive authority to the Student Services Department.  After a month of no response, they finally decided to return the decisive authority to the Administrative Team.  The Administrative Team then decided to enforce the previous ruling that prohibits the wearing of any shirt with a written message containing the word “Hemp” on it; they also decided to include the words “Industrial Hemp” in this ban.  Although in the beginning of this ordeal my principals believed hemp to be marijuana, they have since recognized the difference, yet state that the shirt should still be banned because the average student could interpret the shirt to refer to marijuana, as they originally did.  I do recognize this unfortunate ignorance in our community, but do not find it as reasonable grounds to infringe upon my constitutional rights.  This ignorance is the exact reason I so passionately persist in educating individuals on industrial hemp.

I have attached the following documents that I ask you to read to ensure your understanding of the situation:  a letter from Mrs. Doyle documenting the policy, my letter to Mr. Vines, an email from Mr. Tom Murphy (the National Outreach Coordinator for Vote Hemp http://www.votehemp.com) to Mr. Vines, an article by Dr. David P. West, Hemp and Marijuana: Myths & Realities and a paper by Dr. Shannon L. Datwyler and Dr. George D. Weiblen, Genetic Variation in Hemp and Marijuana (Cannabis sativa L.) According to Amplified Fragment Length Polymorphisms.  These documents not only express my personal viewpoints, such as my letter to Mr. Vines, but also present scientific and legal facts on hemp.  After giving Mr. Vines the article by Dr. West, he recently expressed to me that he feels he was “ignorant” of the difference between industrial hemp and marijuana; and that he now understands the difference and credits this enlightenment to the article.  I hope that if you are not already aware of the difference, the article will do the same for you.  If you would like any more information on industrial hemp, please feel free to contact Mr. Murphy or me.  I sincerely thank you for your time and hope that you will reinstate my right to express my views on industrial hemp by overturning the previous ruling and allowing to wear my shirt.  If not, I will certainly respect your decision, but as I stated in my letter to Mr. Vines, I am morally obligated to challenge and appeal the banning of my shirt until my rights are reinstated.




Brian Simpson

Cc:  Superintendent, Randy Fuller
       American Civil Liberties Union