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Letter Re: Republic, MO Banning of Slaughterhouse 5

Letter Re: Republic, MO Banning of Slaughterhouse 5

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Published by: ncacensorship on Aug 21, 2011
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08/22/2011

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 August 18, 2011Dr. Vern Minor, SuperintendentMembers of the Republic School District Board of Education518 N. HamptonRepublic, MO 65738Vern.Minor@republicschools.org Dear Superintendent Minor and Members of the Board:We are troubled by your recent decision to ban
Slaughterhouse Five
, by KurtVonnegut, and
Twenty Boy Summer 
, by Sarah Ockler, from the Republic publicschools. In our view, the Board’s decision to remove these books is educationallyunsound and constitutionally suspect. We strongly urge you to reconsider yourdecision.
Slaughterhouse Five
by Kurt Vonnegut holds a place of honor in contemporaryAmerican literature. This semi-autobiographical account of the bombing of Dresdenin World War II, drawn in part from Vonnegut’s experiences as a young soldier andprisoner of war, is widely recognized as a work of significant literary and artisticmerit. It has been called a “thundering moral statement.” In 1998, the ModernLibrary placed it as #18 on its list of the 100 top novels. Although less well known,
Twenty Boy Summer 
is recommended for teenage readers by
 Booklist 
and
Kirkus Reviews
, for its “lyrical writing” and “authentically depicted feelings.”
VOYA
calls itan “intelligent, heartfelt novel” and
School Library Journal
describes it as “athoughtful, multilayered story about friendship, loss, and moving on.”A complaint by Wesley Scroggins initiated the review process that ultimately resultedin the removal of the two books. His objections were to “vulgar language,” violence,and sexual content, particularly “sex outside of marriage and homosexuality.” Thecomplaint asserts that “[r]equiring children to be exposed to this content at school isimmoral. It is an abomination to God to expose children to this material …. It isdifficult to understand how a school board and school administration that claims to beChristian and profess Jesus Christ can expose children to such immoral and vulgarcontent.” This complaint provided the basis for all the decisions that followed. Therewere no other challenges to these books, and no books other than those identified byMr. Scroggins were reviewed. Clearly, these books would not have been subjected toreview if the complaint had not been filed, and Scroggins’ religious objections thustainted the entire review process.Even if that were not the case, the decision to remove the two books cannot be justified. Only one board member of the four who voted actually read the
 
2books, and the other three therefore had no basis to judge the books’ literary andeducational value. Instead, the board seems to have uncritically accepted theSuperintendent’s view that they are not “appropriate,” because of certain content andbecause the books send “the wrong message.”This kind of viewpoint and content-based discrimination violates the most basic principleof the First Amendment: “government has no power to restrict expression because of itsmessage, its ideas, its subject matter, or its content.”
 Ashcroft 
v.
 American Civil LibertiesUnion
(2002). The rule makes no exception for public schools: “[l]ocal school boardsmay not remove books from school libraries simply because they dislike the ideascontained in those books …”
 Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District No. 26 v. Pico
(1982). Indeed, school officials have a special responsibility touphold these constitutional norms. “That they are educating the young for citizenship isreason for scrupulous protection of Constitutional freedoms of the individual, if we arenot to strangle the free mind at its source and teach youth to discount important principlesof our government as mere platitudes...”
West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette
 (1943).It is irrelevant that the board’s decision was based on “standards” modeled on the ratingsystems created for movies, music, TV, and video games. Those ratings are themselvescontent-based, and thus constitutionally suspect, because they classify material based oncontent, particularly sex and violence. Neither ratings nor the newly adopted standardsaddress the literary and educational merits of a work, which is the key issue. Moreover,ratings for movies and TV were developed by
 private
entities as informational tools forconsumers. It is a wholly different matter when government officials rate and excludematerial because of certain content. See
 Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association
(2011) (holding California’s ratings and restrictions on violent video gamesunconstitutional).If students were precluded from reading literature considered inappropriate because of sexual or violent content, they would be deprived of exposure to vast amounts of important material, including Shakespeare, major religious texts including the Bible, theworks of Tolstoy, Flaubert, Joyce, Faulkner, D.H. Lawrence, Nabokov, Morrison, andcountless others. As these examples suggest, any attempt "to eliminate everything that isobjectionable...will leave public schools in shreds. Nothing but educational confusion anda discrediting of the public school system can result...."
 McCollum v. Board of Educ.
 (1948) (Jackson, J. concurring).We urge you to provide students with an education that exposes them to challengingmaterials and diverse ideas and beliefs, that prepares them to make their own judgments,and that teaches them to respect the opinions of others. This is at the core of our system:“The Constitution exists precisely so that opinions and judgments, including esthetic andmoral judgments about art and literature, can be formed, tested, and expressed. What theConstitution says is that these judgments are for the individual to make, not for theGovernment to decree, even with the mandate or approval of a majority.”
US v. Playboy Entertainment Group
(2000).
 
3We hope you will reconsider the decision to remove
Slaughterhouse Five
and
Twenty Boy Summer 
, as well as the approach to decisions about selection and retention of booksand other materials. Focusing on the literary and pedagogical value of library andcurricular materials is the best way to serve your students, resolve disputes over valuesand preferences, and protect the district from legal liability. Please return the books tothe classrooms and library shelves where they belong.Please do not hesitate to contact us if we can be of assistance.Joan Bertin Chris FinanExecutive Director President, American BooksellersNational Coalition Against Censorship Foundation for Free Expression19 Fulton Street, Suite 407 19 Fulton Street, Suite 407New York, NY 10038 New York, NY 10038(212) 807-6222 ext. 101 (212) 587-4025 ext. 4bertin@ncac.org chris@abffe.org  Judith Platt Larry SiemsDirector, Free Expression Advocacy Director, Freedom to Write &Association of American Publishers International Programs455 Massachusetts Avenue, NW PEN American CenterWashington, D.C. 20001 588 Broadway(202) 220-4551 New York, NY 10012 jplatt@publishers.org(212) 334-1660 ext. 105LSiems@Pen.org Lin Oliver, Executive Director Millie Davis, Division DirectorSociety of Children's Book Writers Communications and Affiliate Servicesand Illustrators National Council of Teachers of English8271 Beverly Boulevard 1111 West Kenyan Road, Urbana, IL 61801Los Angeles, CA 90048 (800) 369-6283 ext. 3634(323) 782-1010mdavis@ncte.org linoliver@scbwi.org 

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