Looking for Alaska by John Green Challenged at Depew High School, Depew, NY
Kimberly A. Mueller, Superintendent
Members of the Board of Education
Depew Union Free School District
591 Terrace Boulevard
Depew, New York 14043
February 22, 2008
Dear Superintendent Mueller and Members of the Board of Education:
We write to oppose efforts to remove the book, Looking for Alaska by John Green, from the 11th grade English curriculum at Depew High School. We understand that the book has been challenged by some parents who object to sexual content and graphic language in the book. We also understand that the board has appointed a committee to review the book and report on its findings at the board meeting in March.
The views of the parents who object to the book are not shared by everyone, and they have no right to censor what other children read. 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). 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 sexual content and language in Looking for Alaska represent small but essential parts of the novel, consistent with the kind of material that high school students frequently read and encounter. Indeed, if students were precluded from reading literature with sexual content, they would be deprived of exposure to Shakespeare, major religious texts such as the Bible, the works of Tolstoy, Flaubert, Joyce, Faulkner, D.H. Lawrence, and Nabokov, contemporary books such as I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and many of the texts regularly assigned in high schools throughout the State of New York. The district would potentially put its students at a disadvantage in college if it did not permit them to read literature of this sort in high school.
While some parents prefer to keep their children from reading about sex, others appreciate books like Looking for Alaska because they create opportunities for adults and teens to talk about sensitive topics. Even if the novels’ themes are too mature for some students, they will be meaningful to others. The school’s permission forms have already given parents ample opportunity to request an alternative assignment for their children, should they choose to do so.
We also recommend that you refrain from using permission slips for literature. Sending home permission slips sets up a complicated, arbitrary system for evaluating literature based on assumptions about what parents may or may not find objectionable and undermines the teacher’s authority to design a curriculum. It will be difficult to decide which books or kinds of material necessitate a permission slip. Works like Shakespeare’s plays include sexual content, language and innuendo, yet they are essential pieces of most high school English classes and should not require parents to sign off on their place in the curriculum. The task of selecting curriculum materials properly belongs to professional educators. In our experience, we recommend that a parent or student who objects to a particular assignment be offered an alternative assignment at the teacher’s discretion. 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 Board did the right thing in assembling a team of specialists to review this material using their educational expertise. 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. 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 Looking for Alaska in the 11th grade English curriculum at Depew High School. 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 contact us.
National Coalition Against Censorship
American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression