Books in schools are challenged and banned for many reasons and happen because people who find an idea so appalling take steps to prevent other people from encountering it. While this reaction may be normal for some people, it should be limited to their personal household. When this reaction is pushed into a school district, it becomes censorship and restricts individuals from encountering new ideas and literature. The American Library Association (ALA) defines a challenge as an attempt to remove or restrict materials, based upon the objection of a person or
group and a banning as the removal of said materials.
Banned Books Week is an annual event that celebrates the importance of the First Amendment of the US Constitution and the freedom to read. This year, it is from September 24 to October 1. Local libraries hold events during this week and the ALA has a calendar of events on their website for anyone who wishes to participate. It is through the effort of caring individuals and communities, including teachers, librarians, and booksellers that challenged books have been prevented from becoming banned books. Bringing attention to the books that have been banned and challenged is important, if only to draw attention to the novels themselves and hope more people read them.
Just last month, in Republic, MO, a local man named Wesley Scroggins led an effort to ban 3 novels from the Republic school district. Two of the three were successfully banned after the school board voted 4-0. Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five and Sarah Ockler's Twenty Boy Summer
were considered inappropriate for the classroom. Scroggin wrote an article in the News-Leader entitled "Filthy books demeaning to Republic education" last September demanding that school officials do something about the books because of profanity and sex. He stated, "This is unacceptable, considering that most of the school board members are Christian. How can Christian men and women expose children to such immorality?" After the school board voted, the school superintendent stated the students could read the novels for "independent study" with a note from parents, but the books would not be available in the school library. He has not commented more on the decision.
In response to the banning of Slaughterhouse-Five, the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library offered 150 free copies to students in the Republic district. The Americans United for Separation of Church and State also called attention to the Republic school board decision on their blog "Wall of Separation" stating "If there’s any silver lining in this sorry incident, it’s this: Telling young people that they can’t or shouldn’t read a certain book or listen to a certain CD almost always causes a run on that book or CD. After all, it’s imperative to find out what it is that the adults don’t want you to see or hear. So I say to the students of Republic High: Get your hands on a copy of Slaughterhouse-Five. It’s worth your time. And if you’re having trouble finding a copy around town, drop me a line. I know a source at a used-book store who can round up as many as you need."
While not all freethinkers are avid readers of literature, this is an issue that is important, not just because of the religious reasons for challenges, but because freethinkers typically stand against censorship and promote First Amendment rights and individual freedoms. The Republic school district may not have banned the novels because of religion, though many blogs have assumed as much. Although it is outrageous if that was the primary reason, it should be an outrage to freethinkers everywhere that a select few members of a school board can decide what children can and can't read and remove a book from the school library.
This issue goes beyond what is good or bad literature. It threatens freedom of expression. How many good books might not be written for fear of censorship? How many high schoolers --students old enough to hold jobs, drive cars, even join the military and take college courses, won't read controversial and thought provoking literature because they do not have access to it? How many relevant classroom discussions of controversial literature will be effected if students are no long able to read thought provoking literature in a classroom environment?
Freethinkers promote knowledge and it is a sad thing to see the pursuit of knowledge meeting roadblock in the American public education system.
for more information on how to celebrate Banned Books Week.
Supreme Court cases involving school boards and literature:
Evans v. Selma Union High School District of Fresno County, 222 P. 801 (Ca. 1924)
The California State Supreme Court held that the King James version of the Bible was not a "publication of a sectarian, partisan, or denominational character" that a State statute required a public high school library to exclude from its collections. The "fact that the King James version is commonly used by Protestant Churches and not by Catholics" does not "make its character sectarian," the court stated. "The mere act of purchasing a book to be added to the school library does not carry with it any implication of the adoption of the theory or dogma contained therein, or any approval of the book itself, except as a work of literature fit to be included in a reference library."
Todd v. Rochester Community Schools, 200 N.W.2d 90 (Mich. Ct. App.1972)
In deciding that Slaughterhouse-Five could not be banned from the libraries and classrooms of the Michigan schools, the Court of Appeals of Michigan declared: "Vonnegut's literary dwellings on war, religion, death, Christ, God, government, politics, and any other subject should be as welcome in the public schools of this state as those of Machiavelli, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Melville, Lenin, Joseph McCarthy, or Walt Disney. The students of Michigan are free to make of Slaughterhouse-Five what they will."
Campbell v. St. Tammany Parish School Board, 64 F.3d 184 (5th Cir. 1995)
Public school district removed the book Voodoo and Hoodoo, a discussion of the origins, history, and practices of the voodoo and hoodoo religions that included an outline of some specific practices, from all district library shelves. Parents of several students sued and the district court granted summary judgment in their favor. The court of appeals reversed, finding that there was not enough evidence at that stage to determine that board members had an unconstitutional
motivation, such as denying students access to ideas with which board members disagreed; the court remanded the case for a full trial at which all board members could be questioned about their reasons for removing the book. The court observed that "in light of the special role of the
school library as a place where students may freely and voluntarily explore diverse topics, the school board's non-curricular decision to remove a book well after it had been placed in the public school libraries evokes the question whether that action might not be an attempt to 'strangle the free mind at its source.'" The court focused on some evidence that school board members had removed the book without having read it or having read only excerpts provided by the Christian
Coalition. The parties settled the case before trial by returning the book to the libraries on specially designated reserve shelves.
Sund v. City of Wichita Falls, Texas, 121 F. Supp. 2d 530 (N.D. Texas, 2000)
City residents who were members of a church sought removal of two books, Heather Has Two Mommies and Daddy's Roommate, because they disapproved of the books' depiction of homosexuality. The City of Wichita Falls City Council voted to restrict access to the books if 300 persons signed a petition asking for the restriction. A separate group of citizens filed suit after the books were removed from the children's section and placed on a locked shelf in the adult area of the library. Following a trial on the merits, the District Court permanently enjoined the city from enforcing the resolution permitting the removal of the two books. It held that the City's resolution constituted impermissible content-based and viewpoint based discrimination; was not narrowly
tailored to serve a compelling state interest; provided no standards or review process; and improperly delegated governmental authority over the selection and removal of the library's books to any 300 private citizens who wish to remove a book from the children's area of the Library.
Counts v. Cedarville School District, 295 F.Supp.2d 996 (W.D. Ark. 2003)
The school board of the Cedarville, Arkansas school district voted to restrict students' access to the Harry Potter books, on the grounds that the books promoted disobedience and disrespect for authority and dealt with witchcraft and the occult. As a result of the vote, students in the
Cedarville school district were required to obtain a signed permission slip from their parents or guardians before they would be allowed to borrow any of the Harry Potter books from school libraries. The District Court overturned the Board's decision and ordered the books returned to
unrestricted circulation, on the grounds that the restrictions violated students' First Amendment right to read and receive information. In so doing, the Court noted that while the Board necessarily performed highly discretionary functions related to the operation of the schools, it was still bound by the Bill of Rights and could not abridge students' First Amendment right to read a book on the basis of an undifferentiated fear of disturbance or because the Board disagreed with the ideas contained in the book.
Smith v. Board of School Commissioners of Mobile (Ala.) County, 827 F.2d 684 (11th Cir. 1987)
Parents and other citizens brought a lawsuit against the school board, alleging that the school system was teaching the tenets of an anti-religious religion called "secular humanism." The complainants asked that forty-four different elementary through high school level textbooks be removed from the curriculum. After an initial ruling in a federal district court in favor of the plaintiffs, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit ruled that as long as the school was motivated by a secular purpose, it didn't matter whether the curriculum and texts shared ideas held by one or more religious groups. The Court found that the texts in question promoted important secular values (tolerance, self-respect, logical decision making) and thus the use of the textbooks neither unconstitutionally advanced a nontheistic religion nor inhibited theistic religions.
Mozert v. Hawkins County Board of Education, 827 F.2d 1058 (6th Cir. 1987)
Parents and students brought this action challenging the mandatory use of certain textbooks on the ground that the texts promoted values offensive to their religious beliefs. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit rejected the plaintiffs' claim, finding that the Constitution does not require school curricula to be revised substantially in order to accommodate religious beliefs.
(Featured in Freethinkers of the World newsletter)