N C A C

Kids’ Right to Read Project

A project of the National Coalition Against Censorship
CO-SPONSORED BY

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

Edward Pruden, Ed.D, Superintendent Members, School Board Brunswick County Schools 35 Referendum Drive Bolivia, NC 28422

December 18, 2013

Dear Dr. Pruden and Members of the Board, We are writing in regards to an on-going challenge to Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and its use in Advanced Placement (AP) English courses in Brunswick County Schools. It is our understanding that Pat Sykes, a Brunswick County Commissioner, has requested the book be removed from classroom use and has now appealed a recent positive evaluation of the merits of the work. We urge you to resist pressure to censor from someone who finds a book offensive and to stand by the professional judgment of district educators who selected the work because of its literary and educational merits. The Color Purple is an acclaimed work that won a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award in 1982. It is part of the Advanced Placement curriculum for English approved by the College Board, and has appeared frequently on the AP exam, including four times in the last six years. The book deals with many enduring literary themes and issues: the search for identity, the importance of freedom and independence, the struggle to overcome personal and societal limitations, the importance of education, and the power of narrative, as well as abuse, poverty, and patriarchy. While the book deals with some harsh situations and includes strong language, its overall message is one of love and forgiveness. Despite her limited opportunities and education and the sexual abuse she suffers, the main character, Celie, is ultimately able to overcome adversity, improving the lives of those around her –including her abusers – along the way. As your reconsideration committee unanimously found, the book has significant literary and educational qualities. The words or content that some might classify as objectionable in no way detract from the book’s merits, and may be essential to its power. The challenge alleges that certain content in the book is “immoral,” “filthy” and “profane.” The language and situations in this work, as in any text under study, however, must be seen in the context of the entire work. The ethical and literary value of a work is distorted 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 ignored when protesters focus only on aspects that are offensive to them. Purging classroom reading lists of works that contain profanity, harsh language or sexual situations would deny students access to vast numbers of valuable works of literature. Among the books containing similar language and situations which appear frequently in high school English Language Arts classrooms Catcher in the Rye, Catch-22, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Slaughterhouse-Five, As I Lay Dying, Bless Me, Ultima, Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, and Native Son, not to mention the works of Dostoyevsky, Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck. As these examples suggest, any attempt “to eliminate everything that is objectionable...will leave public schools in shreds. Nothing but educational confusion and a discrediting of the public school system can result....” McCollum v. Board of Educ. 332 U.S. 203 (1948) (Jackson, J. concurring). What’s more, students who do not have access to the approved AP curriculum run the risk of being ill-prepared for the test.

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Under the First Amendment, it is unconstitutional to prohibit “the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.” Texas v. Johnson (1989). “[T]he Constitution exists precisely so that opinions and judgments, including esthetic and moral judgments about art and literature, can be formed, tested, and expressed. What the Constitution says is that these judgments are for the individual to make, not for the Government to decree, even with the mandate or approval of a majority.” US v. Playboy Entertainment Group (2000). These principles apply with equal force to school officials: “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion….” West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette (1943). Thus, “[l]ocal school boards may not remove books from school libraries simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books …” Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District No. 26 v. Pico, (1982). Removal of constitutionally protected material can be justified only if it based on valid educational ground, and no such ground has been advanced in this case, nor could it be. A committee of educators and media specialists reviewed the book and unanimously voted that it remain in the curriculum and media collection. While parents are free to request an alternative assignment for their children, they have no right to impose their views on others or to demand that otherwise educationally worthy materials be removed, merely because they consider them objectionable, offensive, or inappropriate. The complaint contains no legitimate basis on which the book could be removed, and the complainant candidly admits she has not read the book in its entirety and thus has no basis to challenge its pedagogical or other value. Acquiescing to demands from any lay person, much less a government official, in matters of curriculum would set a dangerous precedent that may lead to the continued erosion of academic freedom and of the quality of education in the district. The freedom to read, inquire, question and think for ourselves is foundational to a quality education. We urge you to uphold the highest educational standards for your students, and to respect both the decisions of your professional staff and the intellectual freedom of your college-bound students and retain use of The Color Purple in Brunswick County schools. 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

Lin Oliver Executive Director Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators

Barbara Jones Director, Office for Intellectual Freedom American Library Association

Alexandra Owens Executive Director American Society of Journalists and Authors

Cc: Jessica Swencki, Executive Director, Quality Assurance and Community Engagement Brock Ahrens, Principal, West Brunswick High School

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