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Avenue Richland, WA 99352 Dear President Jansons and Members of the Richland School Board, The undersigned national organizations, which are devoted to advancing education and free expression, write to express our concerns regarding the recent removal of Sherman Alexie’s acclaimed novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, from the Richland School District curriculum. We understand that the book was read in a 9th grade English class under a pilot program. It was then reviewed by the Instructional Materials Committee which recommended its adoption. However, at a meeting on June 14, 2011, the school board voted 3 – 2 not only to reject the book for use in the 9th grade, but also to reject its use in all grades. We urge you to reconsider that decision. In brief, widely accepted legal and educational principles suggest that there is no basis for removing the book and doing so raises serious constitutional questions. No educational rationale has been advanced for removing the book, nor could one be plausibly made. The literary value of this prize-winning novel is widely recognized. The New York Times called The Absolutely True Diary of a PartTime Indian “a gem of a book…heartbreaking, funny, and beautifully written.” USA Today said it is "sure to resonate and lift spirits of all ages for years to come." Publishers Weekly praised the novel as an emotionally gripping story of a teenager struggling with his identity. 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.” These judgments are reflected in the many awards The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian has received. It won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature in 2007, the 2008 Book Sense Book of the Year Children's Literature Honor Book, the 2008 Pacific Northwest Book Award,
7/11/2011 the 2008 American Indian Library Association American Indian Youth Literature Award, The New York Times Notable Children's Books of 2007, and the Los Angeles Times Favorite Children's Books of 2007, among many others. The board member who proposed rejecting the book from all grades cited “gratuitous language and descriptions of sex” as grounds for her objection. However, no book can be properly understood or appreciated if words and scenes are taken out of context. 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 complainants focus only on aspects that are offensive to them. While there may be shock value in isolating and listing selected passages from a book, doing so reveals nothing about the fundamental message or theme in a work, nor does it provide insight into the work’s literary and educational value. These criteria, not individual views and preferences, provide the only basis for constitutionally and educationally sound decisions. Rejecting a book because someone finds material in it objectionable or offensive would invite multiple, often conflicting demands. There are few instructional materials that do not include something that is offensive to someone. Further, it would be wrong to assume that disturbing content is promoted by the author, the teacher, or the school. To the contrary, such content often conveys critical attitudes, and classroom study provides opportunities for students to look beneath surface aspects of literature and to explore its more subtle messages. Removing 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 …”) Furthermore, the school has a constitutional obligation not to endorse or accommodate a particular perspective or viewpoint at the expense of alternative views. It is well established that “no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, [or] religion….” West Virginia State Bd. of Educ. v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624, 642 (1943). It is worth noting that educators are rarely held to violate the First Amendment when they include material that has pedagogical value, whereas removal of material for ideological reasons is 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”) and Parker v. Hurley (1st Cir. 2008) (rejecting effort to remove books that offend parents’ and students’ religious beliefs) with 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.) 2
In this case, the potential for liability is even greater because of the board’s flawed procedures. The question before the board on June 14 was whether to approve the book for the 9th grade. Instead, it voted to remove the book for all grades. No sound pedagogical rationale for such a decision could be claimed, since none was advanced. The only reason cited, as noted above, was based a personal opinion about the “appropriateness” of specific content. This is a far cry from the “legitimate pedagogical rationale” required when a book is rejected in the public schools. The Board’s obligation is to serve all students. It has no right or authority to make choices based on the personal, moral, or religious views or values of some, or even most, members of the community. Students have a right to read high quality literature of this sort, and schools have an obligation to introduce them to the kinds of books that are read in high schools around the country. You place your students at a distinct disadvantage if they are denied this opportunity. We strongly urge you to restore the book without restrictions on its use. Sincerely,
Joan Bertin, Executive Director National Coalition Against Censorship 19 Fulton Street, Suite 407 New York, NY 10038 (212) 807-6222 ext. 101 email@example.com
Chris Finan, President American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression 19 Fulton Street, Suite 407 New York, NY 10038 (212) 587-4025 ext. 4 firstname.lastname@example.org
Judith Platt, Director Free Expression Advocacy Association of American Publishers 50 F. Street, NW, 4th Floor Washington, D.C. 20001 (202) 220-4551 email@example.com
Larry Siems, Director Freedom to Write & International Programs PEN American Center 588 Broadway New York, NY 10012 (212) 334-1660 ext. 105 LSiems@Pen.org
Lin Oliver, Executive Director Society of Children's Book Writers 8271 Beverly Boulevard Los Angeles, CA 90048 (323) 782-1010 firstname.lastname@example.org
Millie Davis, Division Director Communications and Affiliate Services National Council of Teachers of English 1111 West Kenyan Road, Urbana, IL 61801 (800) 369-6283 ext. 3634 email@example.com
Heather Cleary, Vice President, Richland School District Board of Education Mary Guay, Legislative Representative, Richland School District Board of Education Rick Donahoe, Richland School District Board of Education Phyllis Strickler, Richland School District Board of Education
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