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April 27, 2015
Superintendent Jane Lindaman
Members of the Board of Education
1516 Washington St.
Waterloo, IA 50702
Dear Superintendent Lindaman and Members of the Board of Education,
As organizations concerned with the freedom to read, the integrity of the public education system, and the
application of First Amendment law and principles in public institutions, we are writing with serious
concern regarding the removal of Sherman Alexie’s award-winning novel The Absolutely True Diary ofa PartTime Indian from Waterloo School District middle school curriculums without regard to district policy, and
without a review of the book’s literary and educational merits. We strongly urge you to reinstate the book and
follow policy that recognizes the overall literary value of individual books in order to address any current or
As we understand it, a parent objected to profanity and references to sexuality in The Absolutely True Diary.
Shortly after, Dr. Debbie Lee, Executive Director of K-12 Curriculum, sent a memorandum to staff stating that
she was pulling the book from all middle school classrooms because it was “developmentally inappropriate”
for 6th- and 7th-graders. The book was being used in a unit on children's rights and child abuse in a 6th-8th
grade Expanding Learning Program classroom at Hoover Middle School and in an 8th grade classroom at
George Washington Carver Academy in conjunction with classroom discussions.
The decision to remove the book was made on an ad hoc basis, without following the district’s policy for
reviewing book challenges and with no input from teachers. This action violates Policy 603.6-R1. Section G.2,
“Challenged Material,” states:
A committee will be organized by the appropriate curriculum coordinator to review challenged materials at
the time the challenge is received. It is recommended that the committee include five to six members
representing parents, community members, media specialist(s), administrators, and/or teachers.
We understand that the school administration did not consider the objection to be a “formal written
complaint,” and so initially claimed that it could remove the book from the curriculum without a proper
review. Subsequently, at the Waterloo School District’s April 13 Board meeting, Superintendent Lindaman
asserted that policy was not followed in selecting the book for classroom use in that a rationale was not
submitted for teaching it, hence the removal did not require further review. However, to our knowledge,
established practice never required a submission of rationale for teaching a book—it was rightly left to
educators, who best know their student’s abilities, to choose text that is appropriate for their classes.
Citizens have a right to expect elected officials to follow established procedures, and their failure to do so
raises due process concerns about arbitrary government action. This is particularly true when First
Amendment rights are implicated: “… as early as 1923, the Court did not hesitate to condemn under the Due
Process Clause ‘arbitrary’ restrictions upon the freedom of teachers to teach and of students to learn.”
Epperson v. Arkansas, 393 U.S. 97, 105 (1968).
The response to a parent’s complaint, whether formally submitted or not, should not be an outright ban of
the book from all middle school classrooms but, following policy and established practice, a review and
explanation of the book’s literary and pedagogical merit. As you are aware, The Absolutely True Diary has
received universal acclaim from literary critics and educators alike. It received the National Book Award for
Young People’s Literature in 2007, and was named one of the best books of the year by School Library Journal.
Booklist, a publication of the American Library Association, wrote that “younger teens looking for the
strength to lift themselves out of rough situations would do well to start here.” A review in the New York
Times called it “a gem of a book…heartbreaking, funny, and beautifully written.” Kirkus Reviews said it “deftly
mingles raw feelings with funny, sardonic insight,” and Kliatt, a book review for teachers and librarians,
wrote that it is “breathtakingly honest, funny, profane, sad…will stay with readers.”
While, as the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) notes, “materials should be suited to the
maturity level of the students,” it is important to “weigh the value of the material as a whole, particularly its
relevance to educational objectives, against the likelihood of a negative impact on students…That likelihood is
lessened by the exposure the typical student has had to the controversial subject…” Teachers, who have daily
contact with students, are best prepared to make such judgments. When these judgments are in question, a
review should, at least, include these teachers’ expertise.
The decision to remove a book with such strong literary and pedagogical merit not only disserves the
educational interests of students but also raises constitutional questions. Government officials, including
public school administrators, may not prohibit “the expression of an idea simply because society finds the
idea itself offensive of disagreeable.” Texas v. Johnson (1989); see also Board ofEducation, 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 the ideas contained in those books …”)
The district administration has insisted that the book hasn’t been banned because copies are still available in
school libraries. It is irrelevant that the book is available in the library—or at the local bookstore. The book
has been removed from the curriculum, effectively banning it from certain classes, solely because of its
content and the messages it contains.
Every community is home to a diversity of opinions on moral and religious questions, as you yourself noted
in the April 13th meeting. For every parent who objects to an assigned book there will be others who favor it.
In practice, the attempt to alter school curricula in response to individual objections means privileging the
moral or religious beliefs of some families over others. It is precisely this form of viewpoint discrimination
by government that our constitutional system is designed to prevent.
For these reasons, courts have generally upheld school officials’ decisions to include material that has any
educational value, but have been considerably less supportive of decisions to exclude content. Indeed,
removing material in response to objections to content or ideas may make a school district vulnerable to legal
challenge. Compare Monteiro v. Tempe Union High School District (9th Cir. 1998)—recognizing the First
Amendment right of students to read books selected for their “legitimate educational value” even if offensive
to some parents and students—with Pratt v. Independent School Dist. No. 831 (8th Cir. 1982) and Case v. Unified
School Dist. No 233 (D. Kan. 1995), in which it was stated that the First Amendment was violated by removing
materials because of hostility to content and message.
With regard to future policies and their implementation, we are concerned about remarks made during the
April 13th Board meeting indicating that parents should be notified that a text with sexual references or
profanity is being used in a classroom. Singling out books for special treatment because of content is both
constitutionally problematic and educationally misguided.
This is equally true in flagging books for parental scrutiny or demanding special treatment for such books on
the part of teachers. Literature is more than the sum of its parts; a discriminatory treatment of books with
certain kinds of content, as referenced in Section C.2.g of policy 603.6-R1, which singles out particular
content for special review, is suspect as it arbitrarily discriminates against viewpoints. The likely result of
flagging such material will be a cautious (if not sanitized) educational environment in which teachers play it
safe and students are not educationally challenged. If so, students’ intellectual and emotional development
will suffer. We are confident that your goal, as educators in a public school district, is to provide the highest
possible quality of education for all children—not to provide an education in which no one is ever offended.
Decisions about instructional materials should be based on sound educational grounds, not because some
people do or do not agree with the message or content of a particular book. This approach is consistent with
constitutional and educational principles and will serve the interests of both the Waterloo school system and
its students. We urge you to demonstrate your commitment to these goals by restoring The Absolutely True
Diary ofa Part-Time Indian to the middle school curriculum.
If we can be of further assistance, please do not hesitate to contact us.
Joan Bertin, Executive Director
National Coalition Against Censorship
Chris Finan, President
American Booksellers For Free Expression
Millie Davis, Senior Developer
Affiliate Groups and Public Outreach
National Council of Teachers of English
Lin Oliver, Executive Director
Society of Children's Book Writers & Illustrators
Fatima Shaik, Chair
Children's and Young Adult Book Committee
PEN American Center
Charles Brownstein, Executive Director
Comic Book Legal Defense Fund
Judith Platt, Director
Free Expression Advocacy
Association of American Publishers
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