Superintendent Dr. Bernard Taylor, Jr.
1331 Franklin St
Grand Rapids, MI 49501
October 5, 2007
Dear Superintendent Taylor:
We are deeply concerned by reports that you have decided to censor Suzan Lori-Parks’ play TopDog/UnderDog which is included in a literary anthology purchased for the Advanced Placement (AP) English classes at City High School. We understand that, if you are unable to return the books to the publisher, you intend literally to razor out the play and any other “objectionable” material in the anthology. If these reports are accurate, we strongly urge you to reconsider.
While school officials have considerable discretion over curricular and pedagogical decisions, that discretion is limited at least by their obligations under the First Amendment. According to the Supreme Court, the "bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment… is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable." Texas v. Johnson (1989). This has specific significance for the classroom, which "is peculiarly the ‘marketplace of ideas.’" Keyishian v. Board of Regents, (1967) Indeed, access to controversial ideas and material "prepares students for active and effective participation in the pluralistic, often contentious society in which they will soon be adult members." Board of Education v. Pico, (1982) (plurality opinion).
Since TopDog/UnderDog is not assigned reading, it is not part of the curriculum, and razoring it out would be analogous to removing copies of the play from the library. As many courts have recognized, 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).
There are other compelling reasons not to censor TopDog/UnderDog. It is widely recognized as a work of significant literary and artistic merit, for which playwright Suzan Lori-Parks became the first African-American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize. In addition, Ms. Parks was awarded a MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Grant in 2001 and her writing has been considered part of the "canon" of American theatre. Many of her plays, including TopDog/UnderDog, are primarily concerned with the African-American experience and the important issues created by differences in class and race. The playwright’s use of profanity is only one part of her powerful, raw and poetic literary style that depicts the world in which these themes are played out.
Confronting difficult themes like these in literature is part of the educational mission of the schools in general, and an AP program in particular. Indeed, the school district would put its students at a distinct educational disadvantage in college if it fails to prepare them to address literature of this sort. Excluding works with "objectionable language" would deny students exposure to a wide range of material. Even narrowing the restriction to works containing language normally deemed "vulgar" or "profane" would disqualify works of Shakespeare, Hawthorne, Faulkner, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Angelou, and Toni Morrison, to name but a few. As these examples suggest, any attempt "to eliminate everything that is objectionable…will leave public schools in shreds. Nothing but educational confusion and a discrediting of the public school system can result…." McCollum v. Board of Educ. (1948) (Jackson, J. concurring).
In practice, censorship of this sort often invites multiple demands on school officials to modify the curriculum or library holdings to reflect specific beliefs or sensitivities. For all these reasons, it is preferable in our view for educators to acknowledge the need to provide students with the breadth of information and skills necessary to succeed in a diverse society, and to defend the rights of students to access wide-ranging knowledge. Educators have much wider discretion to include material that has pedagogical value than to exclude it, and their decisions to do so have rarely, if ever, been rejected in the courts. See Monteiro v. Tempe Union High School District (9th Cir. 1998).
We strongly urge you to respect the right of students to read TopDog/UnderDog, if they choose to do so, without encountering the artificial barrier that would be created by physically removing the play from the anthology. Just as students are entitled to go to the library and read books of their choosing that reflect a wide range of views, let students decide for themselves, in consultation with their parents if they are minors, if they wish to expand and enrich their education by going beyond the assigned reading and exposing themselves to additional material in the anthology.