Kids’ Right to Read Project

A project of the National Coalition Against Censorship

American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression Association of American Publishers Comic Book Legal Defense Fund

Members, Board of Education Randolph County Public Schools 2222-C South Fayetteville St. Asheboro, NC 27205

September 23, 2013 Dear Board Members, We are writing in respect to the board’s recent vote to ban Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison from Randolph County classrooms and school libraries. As organizations concerned with the freedom to read, we are profoundly disturbed by this blatant censorship and complete disregard for the professional judgment of the district’s educators. We urge you restore full access to the book at your upcoming meeting. Fifty years after its initial publication, Invisible Man remains a highly esteemed work of literature. Invisible Man has been named one of the “Books that Shaped America” by the Library of Congress and it has received numerous prestigious awards, including the National Book Award (1953), National Newspaper Publishers’ Russwurm Award (1953), and National Medal of Arts (1985). A 1956 New York Herald Tribune poll of some two hundred critics, authors and editors recognized Ellison as the nation’s sixth most influential author. The same poll regarded Invisible Man as “the most distinguished single work published in the last 20 years” (Gale Group, 2001). A reviewer in Time calls Invisible Man “a remarkable first novel that gives . . . Ellison a claim to being the best of U.S. . . . writers. It makes him, for that matter, an unusual writer by any standards.” (p. 112) The novel has earned this ample recognition for the excellence of its writing and its themes, which are as relevant today as they were fifty years ago. Ellison explores issues of identity, invisibility/figurative blindness, race and race relations, coming of age, sexuality, trustworthiness, as well as social responsibility—all themes of crucial importance in the lives of high school students. The N.C. Department of Public Instruction (DPI)’s reference materials on the Essential Standards for American Humanities and Common Core standards for American History II, recognize the novel’s timeless value in its message “that freedom, justice and equality are not universal and access to these rights can be limited by prejudice.” Invisible Man is listed on DPI’s suggested English III and English IV books for the K-12 Curriculum and Instruction/Standard Course of Study. It is among the Top 25 of approximately 200 selections for juniors in English III. Invisible Man has appeared 28 times – more than any other novel -- as a free response option on Question 3 for AP Literature and Composition Examination between 1971 and 2013 including the last six years in a row, according to school officials. In our experience with school curricula, we have found that there are few instructional materials that do not include something that is offensive to someone. Further, it would be wrong to assume that the disturbing scenes, profane language, negative events, etc., portrayed in a work are endorsed by the author, the teacher, or the school. In fact, classroom study provides a fertile ground for students to interpret surface aspects of literature and to exercise critical thinking as they discuss the characters and issues in a work.

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We understand that the book underwent a formal reconsideration after the parents of one student objected to its inclusion on a summer reading list. Following district procedure, Invisible Man was evaluated by two committees of educators and administrators, both of which overwhelmingly voted to retain the book. In rejecting the recommendation of its committees and capriciously censoring a critically acclaimed work of literature, the board may be violating the constitutional rights of its students. Government officials, including public school administrators, may not prohibit “the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.” Texas v. Johnson (1989). The Supreme Court has cautioned that “[l]ocal school boards may not remove books from library shelves simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books and seek by their removal to ‘prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion.’” Board of Education v. Pico, 457 U.S. 853, 872 (1982)(plurality opinion). This constitutional duty applies with particular force in the school library, which has “a special role...as a place where students may freely and voluntarily explore diverse topics.” Campbell v. St. Tammany Parish School Board, 64 F. 3d 184, 190 (5th Cir. 1995). Removal of constitutionally protected material can be justified only if it is based on valid educational ground, and no such ground has been advanced in this case, nor could it be. The task of selecting classroom readings 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 qualified to make educational decisions for all. Without questioning the sincerity of those who object to the book, their views are not shared by all and they have no right to impose those views on others. There is no legitimate basis to remove or restrict this book. The book unquestionably has literary and educational value; its removal is sought solely because some parents are offended by its content. While one may sympathize with the parents’ concerns, the school has a duty to base its decisions on sound educational grounds and constitutional considerations. The students deserve no less. Please restore Invisible Man to library shelves and classrooms. Sincerely,

Joan Bertin Executive Director National Coalition Against Censorship

Chris Finan President American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression

Charles Brownstein Executive Director Comic Book Legal Defense Fund

Judy Platt Director, Free Expression Advocacy Association of American Publishers

Kent Williamson Executive Director National Council of Teachers of English

Barbara Jones Director, Office for Intellectual Freedom American Library Association

Larry Siems Director, Freedom to Write and International Programs PEN American Center

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