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Joint Letter to Richland (WA) School District

Joint Letter to Richland (WA) School District

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Published by ncacensorship
From NCAC, ABFFE, AAP, SCBWI, NCTE and PEN
From NCAC, ABFFE, AAP, SCBWI, NCTE and PEN

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Published by: ncacensorship on Jul 12, 2011
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07/12/2011

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 July 11, 2011Richard Jansons, PresidentRichland School District Board of EducationDistrict Administration Building615 Snow AvenueRichland, WA 99352Dear President Jansons and Members of the Richland School Board,The undersigned national organizations, which are devoted to advancingeducation and free expression, write to express our concerns regarding therecent removal of Sherman Alexie’s acclaimed novel,
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,
from the Richland School District curriculum. Weunderstand that the book was read in a 9
th
grade English class under a pilot program. It was then reviewed by the Instructional Materials Committeewhich recommended its adoption. However, at a meeting on June 14,
 
2011,the school board voted 3 – 2 not only to reject the book for use in the 9
th
 grade, but also to reject its use in all grades. We urge you to reconsider thatdecision. In brief, widely accepted legal and educational principles suggestthat there is no basis for removing the book and doing so raises seriousconstitutional questions. No educational rationale has been advanced for removing the book, nor couldone be plausibly made. The literary value of this prize-winning novel is widelyrecognized.
The
 
 New York Times
called
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
“a gem of a book…heartbreaking, funny, and beautifully written.”
USA Today
said it is "sure to resonate and lift spirits of all ages for years tocome."
 Publishers Weekly
praised the novel as an emotionally gripping storyof a teenager struggling with his identity.
 Booklist 
, a publication of theAmerican Library Association, wrote that “younger teens looking for thestrength to lift themselves out of rough situations would do well to start here.”These judgments are reflected in the many awards
The Absolutely True Diaryof a Part-Time Indian
has received. It won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature in 2007, the 2008 Book Sense Book of the Year Children's Literature Honor Book, the 2008 Pacific Northwest Book Award,
 
7/11/20112the 2008 American Indian Library Association American Indian Youth Literature Award,
The New York Times
Notable Children's Books of 2007, and the
 Los Angeles Times
Favorite Children's Books of 2007,among many others.The board member who proposed rejecting the book from all grades cited “gratuitous language anddescriptions of sex” as grounds for her objection. However, no book can be properly understood or appreciated if words and scenes are taken out of context. The ethical and literary value of a work isdistorted if one focuses only on particular words, passages, or segments. An author's broad moral vision,total treatment of theme, and commitment to realistic portrayal of characters and dialogue are ignoredwhen complainants focus only on aspects that are offensive to them. While there may be shock value inisolating and listing selected passages from a book, doing so reveals nothing about the fundamentalmessage or theme in a work, nor does it provide insight into the work’s literary and educational value.These criteria, not individual views and preferences, provide the only basis for constitutionally andeducationally sound decisions.Rejecting a book because someone finds material in it objectionable or offensive would invite multiple,often conflicting demands. There are few instructional materials that do not include
 something 
that isoffensive to
 someone
. Further, it would be wrong to assume that disturbing content is promoted by theauthor, the teacher, or the school. To the contrary, such content often conveys critical attitudes, andclassroom study provides opportunities for students to look beneath surface aspects of literature and toexplore its more subtle messages.Removing a book because some object to, or disapprove of, its content violates basic constitutional principles. Government officials, including public school administrators, may not prohibit “theexpression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.”
Texas v. Johnson
(1989); see also
 Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District No. 26 v. Pico
 (1982) (“local school boards may not remove books from school libraries simply because they dislike theideas contained in those books …”) Furthermore, the school has a constitutional obligation
not 
toendorse or accommodate a particular perspective or viewpoint at the expense of alternative views. It iswell established that “no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics,nationalism, [or] religion….”
West Virginia State Bd. of Educ. v. Barnette
, 319 U.S. 624, 642 (1943).It is worth noting that educators are rarely held to violate the First Amendment when they includematerial that has pedagogical value, whereas removal of material for ideological reasons is vulnerable tolegal challenge.
Compare Monteiro v. Tempe Union High School District 
(9th Cir. 1998) (recognizing theFirst Amendment right of students to read books selected for their “legitimate educational value”) and
 Parker v. Hurley
(1st Cir. 2008) (rejecting effort to remove books that offend parents’ and students’religious beliefs) with
 Pratt v. Independent School Dist. No. 831
(8th Cir. 1982) (First Amendmentviolated when films removed because of hostility to content and message) and
Case v. Unified School  Dist 
.
 No. 233
(D. Kan. 1995) (First Amendment violated by removing a book from school library basedon hostility to its ideas.)
 
7/11/20113In this case, the potential for liability is even greater because of the board’s flawed procedures. Thequestion before the board on June 14 was whether to approve the book for the 9
th
grade. Instead, itvoted to remove the book for all grades. No sound pedagogical rationale for such a decision could beclaimed,
 since
 
none was advanced 
. The only reason cited, as noted above, was based a personal opinionabout the “appropriateness” of specific content. This is a far cry from the “legitimate pedagogicalrationale” required when a book is rejected in the public schools.The Board’s obligation is to serve all students. It has no right or authority to make choices based on the personal, moral, or religious views or values of some, or even most, members of the community.Students have a right to read high quality literature of this sort, and schools have an obligation tointroduce them to the kinds of books that are read in high schools around the country. You place your students at a distinct disadvantage if they are denied this opportunity. We strongly urge you to restorethe book without restrictions on its use.Sincerely,Joan Bertin, Executive Director Chris Finan, President National Coalition Against Censorship American Booksellers Foundation for 19 Fulton Street, Suite 407 Free Expression New York, NY 10038 19 Fulton Street, Suite 407(212) 807-6222 ext. 101 New York, NY 10038 bertin@ncac.org(212) 587-4025 ext. 4chris@abffe.org Judith Platt, Director Larry Siems, Director Free Expression Advocacy Freedom to Write & International ProgramsAssociation of American Publishers PEN American Center 50 F. Street, NW, 4
th
Floor 588 BroadwayWashington, D.C. 20001 New York, NY 10012(202) 220-4551 (212) 334-1660 ext. 105 jplatt@publishers.org LSiems@Pen.org 

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