Network Opposes Potter Policy

To the Editor:

The undersigned organizations, members of the Free Expression Network, oppose the restrictions imposed on the use of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books by Zeeland Public Schools Superintendent Gary Feenstra on Nov. 22. These restrictions include a ban on classroom readings of the Potter books; a requirement of parental permission to borrow the books from school libraries and to use them for book reports; and a decision not to buy any future books in the series.

We believe that these restrictions violate the First Amendment rights of students, teachers and parents in Zeeland. While Feenstra says that he is protecting the rights of those whose religious views might be offended by the Potter books, what he has actually done is to impose those views on the rest of the community. By silencing teachers and removing books with proven educational value from library shelves, he has committed an act of censorship.

Perhaps the most lamentable part of Feenstra’s policy is his decision not to buy future titles in the Potter series based on the view that "controversial" books have no place in the public schools. In 1998, Judge Stephen Reinhardt of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit pointed out the danger of removing a book from the schools simply because it is controversial. In Monteiro vs. Tempe High School, a parent had challenged the inclusion of "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" on a mandatory high school reading list, claiming that the book’s depiction of blacks was offensive. In his opinion, Judge Reinhardt asked what books would remain for students if every group could suppress those it found objectionable.

White plaintiffs could seek to remove books by Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, and other prominent black authors on the ground that they portray Caucasians in a derogatory fashion; Jews might try to impose civil liability for the teachings of William Shakespeare and of more modern English poets where writings exhibit a similar anti-Semitic strain. Female students could attempt to make a case for damages for the assignment of some of the works of Tennessee Williams, Ernest Hemingway, or Sigmund Freud, and male students for the writings of Andrea Dworkin or Margaret Atwood.

Banning books impoverishes our elementary schools no less than our high schools. Censorship is the wrong way for both parents and school officials to deal with material like the Potter books that they may find offensive. While parents have a right to ask that their children be excused from classroom readings of works they dislike, we believe that it would be better for them to talk to their children about their objections. If respect for free speech is optional for parents, it is mandatory for public schools. Banning the use of Potter books in the classroom and restricting access to them in school libraries because of the religious objections of some parents violates the First Amendment, imposes the sensitivities and religious viewpoints of a few parents on the entire school community and does a serious disservice to the education of children in the Zeeland Public Schools.

American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression,
American Civil Liberties Union,
Association of American Publishers,
Association of Booksellers for Children,
Boston Coalition for Freedom of Expression,
Children’s Book Council,
Feminists for Free Expression,
Free Speech Coalition,
Freedom to Read Foundation,
Institute for Unpopular Culture,
National Campaign for Freedom of Expression,
National Coalition Against Censorship,
National Council of Teachers of English,,
PEN American Center,
People for the American Way

Copyright 2000. The Holland Sentinel.