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Logo: Rochester DemocratandChronicle.com

NCAC Letter to Georgetown School District Superintendent of Schools About Excluding Books From High School Curriculum

Update (February 17, 2005): NCAC has been advised that Superintendent Dozier has chosen to retain Whale Talk. We congratulate him on his decision.

January 26, 2005

Dr. Randy Dozier
Superintendent of Schools
Georgetown School District
2018 Church Street
Georgetown, SC 29440

Dear Superintendent Dozier:

I write to express concern about efforts to exclude certain books from the high school English curriculum in Georgetown County. In particular, I understand that Whale Talk, by Chris Crutcher, A Separate Peace, by John Knowles, and Lay That Trumpet in Our Hands, by Susan Carol McCarthy, have been challenged because of objections to language.

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. "Objectionable language" is a broad and subjective category, open to a wide range of interpretations, encompassing virtually anything. Even narrowing the definition to language normally deemed "vulgar" or "profane" would disqualify works of William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Russell Banks, Piri Thomas, and Richard Wright, to name but a few.

As these examples suggest, the 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., 333 U.S. 203, 235 (1948) (Jackson, J. concurring). It likewise follows that any plan to identify "objectionable" books in the curriculum is legally unnecessary and misguided on practical and educational grounds.

For all these reasons, I strongly urge you to defend the professional judgment of the faculty and staff who select curricular materials, as well as the rights of students to access the broad range of materials and ideas experienced by their peers around the country. By offering parents and students the opportunity to request an alternative assignment, you more than adequately address the concerns of those who seek to limit their exposure to words and ideas; to go further would infringe the rights of the many others who are eager for a more inclusive and expansive education.

For your information, I am enclosing copies of a booklet on school censorship that we produced in collaboration with the National Education Association. I hope it will be useful to you and members of the school board, and perhaps to teachers and parents involved in this discussion. If you would like additional copies, or if we can be of further assistance, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Sincerely,
Joan E. Bertin
Executive Director
National Coalition Against Censorship