Kids Right To Read letter on Rejection of Angels In America From 12 Grade AP English Course | Advanced Placement | State School


May 3, 2011

James Morris Superintendent of Schools Fremont Unified School District 4210 Technology Drive Fremont, CA 94538

Dear Superintendent Morris, We write regarding the school board’s rejection of Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America as a secondary textbook for 12th grade Advanced Placement English classes in Fremont Unified School District (FUSD). Although the district’s Textbook Advisory Committee unanimously recommended that the text be approved, the school board rejected the recommendation. According to the minutes of the March 9 board meeting, some board members were concerned about the play’s depiction of Mormons and its treatment of sex and sexuality. In our view, these concerns do not justify rejecting the book for classroom use, and its rejection raises serious constitutional questions. Angels in America is widely recognized as a work of significant literary and artistic merit. Considered a part of the “canon” of American theatre and literature, the play has been lauded by critics and was awarded the prestigious Pulitzer Prize, as well as several Tony Awards, including Best Play. The text uses the emerging AIDS crisis in the 1980s as a lens through which to explore wider issues of politics, spirituality, sexuality, inequality and progress. It unquestionably has educational value. Nonetheless, it was rejected in response to complaints from members of the community that the play is “divisive” and “offensive to people of faith” and that it could prematurely “sexualize” students. While some may sympathize with such concerns, the school has a duty to base its decisions on educational and constitutional considerations. Confronting difficult themes through literature is part of the educational mission of public schools in general and the AP program in particular. Indeed, the school district would put its students at a distinct educational disadvantage in college if it failed to prepare them to address literature of this sort. This concern is not insignificant, considering the fact that virtually all the students in AP English classes are college-bound, and many will attend highly

2 5/3/2011 competitive and demanding schools with students who have read Angels in America or works like it. The text is commonly used in AP English classes because its complex themes are appropriate for study at that level and because it is a work that students can draw upon when answering the “critical lens” questions pertinent to literature study when taking their AP exams. In fact, as the board’s own agenda observed, the book “has been in use by the College Board since 2009 and appears on the AP test as a supplemental reading option.” Rejecting a book because some object to, or disapprove of, its content violates basic constitutional principles. 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); see also Board of Education, 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 …”) Parents have no right to a public school curriculum that is consistent with their personal beliefs and preferences. “[W]hile parents can choose between public and private schools, they do not have a constitutional right to ‘direct how a public school teaches their child.’” Parker v. Hurley, 514 F. 3d 87, 102 (1st Cir., 2008) Parents may be equipped to make choices for their own children, but they are not entitled to make decisions restricting the education of other people’s children. Public schools have an obligation to “administer school curricula responsive to the overall educational needs of the community and its children.” Leebaert v. Harrington, 332 F.3d 134, 141 (2d Cir. 2003). It follows that parents have no right “to tell a public school what his or her child will and will not be taught.” Id. As the widely divergent viewpoints on display at the school board meeting demonstrate, any other rule would put schools in the untenable position of having “to cater a curriculum for each student whose parents had genuine moral disagreements with the school’s choice of subject matter.” Brown v. Hot, Sexy and Safer Productions, Inc. 68 F.3d 525, 534 (1st Cir. 1995), cert. denied, 516 U.S. 1159 (1996). See also Swanson v. Guthrie Indep. School Dist. 135 F.3d 694, 699 (10th Cir. 1998); Littlefield v. Forney Indep. School, 268 F.3d 275, 291 (5th Cir. 2001). The task of selecting curricular materials properly belongs to professional educators who are charged with making pedagogically sound decisions. Those decisions are rarely overturned on First Amendment grounds when schools include material that has educational value, whereas rejection of material for ideological reasons may make a school district vulnerable to legal challenge. See 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”), Parker v. Hurley (1st Cir. 2008) (rejecting effort to remove books that offend parents’ and students’ religious beliefs), Pratt v. Independent School Dist. No. 831 (8th Cir. 1982) (First Amendment violated when films removed because of hostility to content and message), and Case v. Unified School Dist. No. 233 (D. Kan. 1995) (First Amendment violated by removing a book from school library based on hostility to its ideas.) There are few important literary works that do not include something that is offensive to someone. The practical effect of acceding to any parent’s request to censor materials will be to invite more book challenges and to leave school officials vulnerable to multiple, possibly conflicting demands. If students were precluded from reading literature considered inappropriate

3 5/3/2011 by some, they would be deprived of exposure to vast amounts of important material from Shakespeare and the Bible to the works of James Joyce and Maya Angelou. As the Supreme Court has observed, attempts “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. (1948) (Jackson, J. concurring). We hope that you will reconsider the decision to exclude Angels in America from FUSD’s 12 th grade AP English curriculum. You may also want to consult the National Council of Teachers of English’s Guidelines for Selection of Materials in English Language Arts Programs for further guidance regarding secondary textbook adoption procedures. Individual freedom, democracy, and a good education for all depend upon protecting free speech and the right to read, inquire, question and think for ourselves. If we can be of any assistance, please do not hesitate to contact us. Sincerely,

Joan Bertin Executive Director National Coalition Against Censorship 19 Fulton Street, Suite 407 New York, NY 10038 (212) 807-6222 ext. 101

Chris Finan President American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression 19 Fulton Street, Suite 407 New York, NY 10038 (212) 587-4025 ext. 4

Millie Davis Division Director Senior Developer, Affiliated Groups and Public Outreach National Council of Teachers of English 1111 W. Kenyon Road Urbana, IL 61801 (217) 278-3634

Judith Platt Director, Free Expression Advocacy Association of American Publishers 50 F. Street, NW 4th Floor Washington, D.C. 20001 (202) 220-4551

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