“Fear of serious injury alone cannot justify oppression of free speech and assembly. Men feared witches and burnt women. It is the function of speech to free men from the bondage of irrational fears.” —U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis (1856-1941)
Nice thought, but even in 2016 Atticus Finch and Huck Finn have to deal with complaints. A formal complaint has been filed in the Accomack County Public School system against the use of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “To Kill a Mockingbird”. The appearance of a “racial slur” in both works is the basis for the complaint. Atticus and Huck will have to wait on the sidelines while a “committee” hashes this out.
As was reported by Hillary Chesson of the Eastern Shore News, “Marie Rothstein-Williams, a white parent of a biracial child who attends Nandua High School, spoke at a Nov. 15 Accomack County School Board meeting against the use of the books “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “To Kill a Mockingbird” in Accomack County classrooms and libraries.“I keep hearing ‘This is a classic, this is a classic.’ I understand this is a literature classic but at some point I feel the children will not or do not truly get the classic part, the literature part — which I’m not disputing this is great literature — but there is so much racial slurs in there and offensive wording that you can’t get past that.” Rothstein-Williams stated that the nation is divided as it is and she teaches her son that he is the “best of both worlds,” and doesn’t want him to feel otherwise. “There’s other literature they can use,” she said. “We’re validating that these words are acceptable and they’re not acceptable by no means.”
While Ms. Rothstein-Williams’ offers a somewhat fragile argument, it is a legitimate concern, and as such, the Accomack County Public School system must address it, putting them in a fine, if not original mess. While part of the argument focuses on “validating racism”, the core premise of those advocating for such a ban would be that children may be harmed if we don’t protect them from this inappropriate material.
Is this censorship, and are books and other curriculum protected by the U.S. Constitution?
The American Association of School Administrators and the American Library Association define censorship as: “[T]he removal, suppression, or restricted circulation of literary, artistic, or educational materials — of images, ideas, and information — on the grounds that these are morally or otherwise objectionable in light of standards applied by the censor.” As the new GE commercial says, almost every idea, at one point, has proven to be objectionable to someone.
Freedom of expression is guaranteed by the First Amendment to the United States’ Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
Despite this apparent granting of freedom, challenges to it are not infrequent, and many involve school and public library books. According to the American Library Association, “a challenge is an attempt to remove or restrict materials [in a published book], based upon the objections of a person or group… Challenges do not simply involve a person expressing a point of view; rather, they are an attempt to remove material from the curriculum or library, thereby restricting the access of others.”
Despite all of this, the Supreme Court has trended toward supporting the schools, while cautioning educators to remain aware of values, including minority values, in the communities they serve. Other legal experts have cited the First Amendment of the Constitution as protecting both students’ rights to know and teachers’ rights to academic freedom. But here’s the rub– legal experts also argue that parents have the right to protest books or materials that they consider damaging to their children.
In Island Trees Union Free High School v. Pico (1982), which Accomack could use to defend Huck Finn, the Court asserted that the “Constitution does not permit the official suppression of ideas,” and the banned books were returned to school shelves. Here the Court appears to allow schools a good bit of latitude with curriculum materials.
Accomack should be given credit for handling a tough situation gracefully. While School boards are legally responsible for what is taught in a district (according to U.S. courts), the board delegates power to school officials and so is held responsible for school policies.
In this case, the complaint is handled by the school’s policy manual under the “School-Community Relations” section. While some would argue the material should be available until officially ruled unacceptable, Accomack has placed the works in temporary limbo until the committee can come to some form of agreement (the parent, student, principal and a library media specialist are all part of the process).
Accomack appears to be following the National School Board Association’s recommendation that “the challenge is not to avoid censorship, but to meet it head on with adequate policies and procedures that provide an open forum for deciding what should — or should not — take place in public schools.”
Taken further, how does a school system determine if a work such as Huck Finn is still relevant, and are there professional and scholarly critiques that support it? Applying 2016 mores and codes to a 19th century work (classic) may not provide appropriate criteria for banning it. In cases of works like Huckleberry Finn, Catch-22, or the Scarlet Letter, making it optional, rather than required reading may provide a way forward for schools to continue to teach powerful works that may not be appropriate for all readers.