National anti-censorship orgs protest cancellation of Little Brother summer reading program

Last week's news that the principal of Pensacola, FL's Booker T Washington High School had cancelled its One School/One Book summer reading program rather than have his students read my novel Little Brother has alarmed several national anti-censorship organizations, led by the National Coalition Against Censorship. Their open letter to the principal of BTWHS, signed by the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, the National Council of Teachers of English, the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, the American Booksellers Federation for Free Expression, the Association of American Publishers, and PEN American Center, discusses the legal and moral duty of educators to put challenging material in front of their students.

I'm immensely grateful to these organizations and especially the NCAC for their support, and I really hope that the principal reconsiders his decision and that I can have a chance to discuss the admittedly challenging themes and scenes in Little Brother with his students in the fall.

Dear Dr Roberts:

We write to express concern about the decision to cancel the assignment of Cory Doctorow’s novel, Little Brother, for a school- wide summer reading program at Booker T. Washington High School, a few days before the beginning of the summer break.

As we understand it, the book was selected after an extensive process by the professional staff. There was no formal challenge to the book and thus no reconsideration by a review committee to address the merits of the book or respond to any objections to it. Even though you apparently recognize that the book is well-written and that it addresses important and timely topics, we gather that you decided to withdraw the assignment because of concerns that some parents might object to scenes involving sex and violence and the idea of questioning authority.

School officials are bound by constitutional considerations, including a duty not to give in to pressure to suppress unpopular or controversial ideas. Removing a book because it contains ideas that some members of the community may object to, or disapprove of, violates basic constitutional principles. According to the Supreme Court, the "bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment... is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable." Texas v. Johnson (1989). The First Amendment “protects the citizen against the State itself and all of its creatures — Boards of Education not excepted.... That they are educating the young for citizenship is reason for scrupulous protection of Constitutional freedoms of the individual, if we are not to strangle the free mind at its source and teach youth to discount important principles of our government as mere platitudes.... ....” West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette (1943).

Indeed, confronting controversial and complex themes in literature is part of the educational mission of the schools. A school district puts its students at a distinct disadvantage if it fails to introduce them to the wide range of ideas that they will encounter in college and in life. Excluding works out of fear that they might be controversial would deny students exposure to a wide range of material, including works by Shakespeare, Hawthorne, Faulkner, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Angelou, and Toni Morrison, to name but a few. 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. (1948) (Jackson, J. concurring).

Canceling the assignment privileges the political, moral, and religious beliefs of some individuals, who might object to the books content, over others, who would not. It is precisely this form of viewpoint discrimination by government that our constitutional system is designed to prevent. Educators are rarely held to violate the First Amendment when they include material that has pedagogical value, even if it is offensive to some, whereas acceding to a demand – actual or anticipated – to remove material for ideological reasons is 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), and Pratt v. Independent School Dist. No. 831 (8th Cir. 1982) (First Amendment violated when films removed because of hostilityto content and message).

It is no answer to say that the book has not been “censored” because it is still available from the library, bookstores, or, in this case, online. A book does not have to be censored everywhere to be censored somewhere, nor does it have to be made completely inaccessible to fall within the First Amendment's prohibition on government action "abridging freedom of speech." Public school students are entitled to be exposed to a wide variety of viewpoints unconstrained by limits imposed by what some think is controversial subject matter. These are precisely the ideas they will soon confront in real life.

We strongly urge you to reinstate Little Brother as the school-wide summer reading assignment. We appreciate the difficulties you might encounter from some elements in the community, but you will be acting not only in accordance with fundamental constitutional values but also in the best interests of students if you stand up for the principle that they should be able to read and discuss literature of all kinds. You will also have wholehearted support from a community of educators, First Amendment experts, and advocates for students.

Please feel free to call on us if you wish to discuss these issues, or if we can be of further assistance.

Joan Bertin
Executive Director
National Coalition Against Censorship

Chris Finan
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

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

FL School’s Cancelling Little Brother Assignment Causes Big First Amendment Concerns For National Organizations