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February 6, 2015
Superintendent Dawson Orr
Members of the Board of Trustees
Highland Park Independent School District
7015 Westchester Drive
Dallas, TX 75205-1061
Dear Superintendent Orr and Members of the Board of Trustees,
As you may recall, we wrote previously to express concerns about the ongoing controversy over instructional
materials in Highland Park High School. We are aware that proposed new policies and procedures to deal with
book selection and challenges have been presented to the board for a possible vote next week, and we write again
to address two matters of particular concern: the role of parents in the curriculum selection process, and the role
that “community standards” play, if any, in this process.
As outsiders to your community, we are acutely aware that we are not privy to many of the forces at play in this
controversy. However, the situation in HPISD is not unique. Indeed, we have observed many similar
controversies in the public schools and interacted with hundreds if not thousands of school officials who, like you,
confront competing visions of the proper functioning of the public education system. Many of them have
reported that the information and analysis we provide, based on 40 years of experience working on local book
censorship controversies all over the country, have in fact helped them understand and navigate these challenging
Our goal is to help school districts understand how First Amendment principles apply in the public schools, the
relevance of those principles to high quality education, and the constitutional constraints on public school
officials. These principles do not conflict in any way with the rights of parents to direct the upbringing and
education of their own children. They do, however, limit the right of any parent or group of parents to restrict the
access to information or ideas of other people’s children or the right of parents to demand that the public schools
reflect their views or accommodate their preferences. Instead, we submit that by basing decisions on educational
criteria, school officials will promote the school’s educational mission, address the legitimate demands of parents,
and show respect for critical constitutional principles.
As has now become obvious, there is significant disagreement about what kind of educational material is
“appropriate” for students at HPHS, and that it will be virtually impossible to select materials that satisfy all
parents. This is illustrated starkly by the challenges to The Art ofRacing in the Rain by Garth Stein and to The
Working Poor by David Shipler.
The Reconsideration Committee concluded, over a single dissenting vote, that The Art ofRacing in the Rain was
“appropriate for continued use.” While it is gratifying that there was near unanimity, there remains at least one
person, the parent who filed the initial complaint, who continues to disagree with the decision and who, it is
reported, is appealing the decision based on objections to profanity and sexual content. While parents are fully
entitled to their views about this kind of content, the committee’s vote made it clear that others did not share
them. As Mr. Kelly’s Jan. 6, 2015 letter indicates, that parent has the option of requesting an alternative text, a
solution that should address her legitimate concerns for her own child’s education and upbringing. If her
concerns extend to the exposure of other people’s children to such material, we submit that it would be entirely
impermissible for the school to impose her views on other parents and their children.
The complaint about The Working Poor, even though it has been withdrawn,1 demonstrates even more dramatically
that parents hold widely divergent views of curricular choices along with concerns that may be unique and
unforeseeable. Its author is a Pulitzer-Prize-winning author who has had a distinguished career; The Working Poor
was itself a finalist for National Book Critics Circle Award.
In a New York Times review, Pulitzer winner Ron Suskind called it “one of those seminal books that every
American should read and read now.” The challenge specifically cited content that was “sexually explicit…
degrading and offensive to women portraying them as weak, pathetic, ignorant, sexual objects and incapable
beings.” The plain purpose of that content, however, is to shed light on the connection between sexual abuse and
poverty, not to make a statement about women in general.
By no definition is this material “obscenely written,” as the complaint alleged, nor can it be dismissed as
educationally unsuitable by claiming that, if it were a movie, it would be rated “R or NC17.” No doubt the book
may be disturbing to some readers, less because of its language than because of the reality it portrays. However,
the fact that it seeks to promote “a deeper understanding” of that reality provides a legitimate educational reason
to assign it to students in advanced placement classes. That is all the justification necessary or appropriate for the
Together, these two situations reveal the pitfalls of the proposal to include “community feedback” as an element of
the curriculum selection process, as specified in the draft HPHS Literature Selection Procedures (dated January
20, 2015) to implement the proposed new policies. The proposed procedures do not define the criteria for
determining when “works should be further reviewed with community feedback,” although the community
feedback form suggests that the presence of “social content,” “violent content,” or “sexual content” may play a role,
along with “community standards.”
We have commented previously on the dangers of singling out certain content widely present in contemporary
and classical literature for special scrutiny, and note here only that it is inconsistent with the directive in Proposed
EFA (Local) to consider “material as a whole.” However, we have additional concerns about the reference to
“community standards” in the proposed procedures. This vague, standard-less approach has already been called
into question. The January 6 letter from Mr. Kelly to Lisa Mead, who filed the challenge to The Art ofRacing in the
Rain, states “when asked how the District was to determine the appropriate community standard, your attorney
acknowledges that he did not know how it could be done with any sense of accuracy. Board policy makes clear that
instructional materials should not be selected by a popular vote of the community….”
The inability to define “community standards” is a major problem, but not the only one. The notion of
“community standards” as used in the new proposal suggests a role for schools in the transmission of dominant
social and/or moral values and conventions, which is not a permissible function of public school education.2
1 The challenge was reported withdrawn only because the complainant was dissatisfied with the composition of the review committee,
suggesting that the review committee could become yet another source of controversy.
2 The term has legal significance primarily if not exclusively as a component of the tree-part test for obscenity articulated in Miller v.
U.S. 15, 24 (1973). Even in that context, however, its meaning is carefully circumscribed by constitutional principles:
Just as the ideas a work represents need not obtain majority approval to merit protection, neither, insofar as the First
Amendment is concerned, does the value of the work vary from community to community based on the degree of local
acceptance it has won. The proper inquiry is not whether an ordinary member of any given community would find serious
literary, artistic, political, or scientific value in allegedly obscene material, but whether a reasonable person would find such
value in the material, taken as a whole.
While the “socializing” role of public schools is well-accepted, it is defined as “inculcating fundamental values
necessary to the maintenance ofa democratic political system,” and provides no support for the idea that school
officials may use their position of authority in a manner that “invades the sphere of intellect and spirit which it is
the purpose of the First Amendment to our Constitution to reserve from all official control." West Virginia Board of
Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624, 642 (1943) (emphasis added). This is consistent with earlier and later cases
the discretion of the States and local school boards in matters of education must be
exercised in a manner that comports with the transcendent imperatives of the First
Amendment…. [It is] the duty of federal courts "to apply the First Amendment's mandate in
our educational system where essential to safeguard the fundamental values of freedom of
speech and inquiry."
Board ofEducation, Island Trees Union Free School District v. Pico, 457 U. S. 857, 864 (1982) (plurality op; citations
omitted, emphasis added.) Thus, to the extent that school officials are authorized to “inculcate fundamental
values,” their role is to prepare students for citizenship in a diverse democratic society, not to promote or endorse
specific moral, religious, or personal values. The Supreme Court has made it clear that authority over such matters
of belief and conscience is off limits to local school officials.
The time-consuming process of reviewing books under these circumstances has already been demonstrated. The
time thus expended could be much more profitably spent on professional assessments of educational materials
and the process of engaging parents, through public events and meetings with parents, in their children’s
education by describing key elements of the educational program and explaining how specific curricular materials
promote the district’s educational mission.
The challenge to The Art ofRacing in the Rain indicates that, at least where that book is concerned, the vast
majority of parents do not share the complainant’s objections to the book: according to Mr. Kelly’s January 6 letter,
the book was in use for four years prior to the current controversy and was read by approximately 1,800 students.
It generated no objections during that time. Since the controversy erupted, district records indicate that only three
students have requested an alternative, out of the more than 200 who were assigned to read it.
Mandating the use of a complex time-consuming new selection process to address the concerns of three
individuals is not only an unnecessary response to a non-existent problem, but also one that we strongly predict
will come to haunt the district for years to come. As we have stated in earlier correspondence, inviting complaints
based on personal opinions or some undefinable concept of “community standards” invites on-going controversy
and dispute over who decides what will be taught. For the sake of your students, that decision must be based on
pedagogical value as determined by professional educators.
For reasons stated, we strongly urge you to adopt policies that:
Respect the professional judgment of the district’s educational staff with regard to the
selection of curricular materials;
Respect the rights of parents to direct their children’s education by providing information
about the mission of the educational program and the methods that have been selected to
achieve it, and by providing opportunities for parents to work with teachers to accommodate
Respect the rights and needs of students in the district to receive an education that will
prepare them, as well as possible, for college and life.
Please do not hesitate if we can be of further assistance in developing specific policies to achieve these goals.
Pope v. Illinois, 481 U.S. 487, 500-01 (1987). See also Hamling v. U.S., 418 U.S. 87, 107 (1974) : “a principal concern in requiring that a judgment be
made on the basis of "contemporary community standards” is to assure that the material is judged neither on the basis of each juror's personal
opinion, nor by its effect on a particularly sensitive or insensitive person or group.)
Chris Finan, President
American Booksellers For Free Expression
Joan Bertin, Executive Director
National Coalition Against Censorship
Judy Platt, Director
Free Expression Advocacy
Association of American Publishers
Charles Brownstein, Executive Director
Comic Book Legal Defense Fund
Millie Davis, Senior Developer
Affiliate Groups and Public Outreach
National Council of Teachers of English
Susanna Reich, Chair
Children's and Young Adult Book Committee
PEN American Center
Lin Oliver, Executive Director
Society of Children's Book Writers & Illustrators
Dr. Dawson Orr, firstname.lastname@example.org
Leslie L. Melson, email@example.com
James L. Hitzelberger, firstname.lastname@example.org
Cynthia W. Beecherl, email@example.com
Joseph G. Taylor, firstname.lastname@example.org
Paul E. Rowsey, email@example.com
Kelly Walker, firstname.lastname@example.org
Sam Dalton, email@example.com
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