ACLU Defends Teacher's Right to Post Banned Book List in Virginia

Affiliate: ACLU of Virginia
January 12, 2000 12:00 am

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RICHMOND, VA — The ACLU of Virginia, joined by five national organizations representing booksellers, publishers, librarians, and writers, has filed a lawsuit on behalf of a Rockingham County, Virginia, high school teacher who was forced to remove from his classroom door two lists of banned books published by the American Library Association.

The complaint, filed earlier today in U.S. District Court in Harrisonburg, claims that Spotswood High School Principal C. James Slye violated the First Amendment rights of English teacher Jeffrey Newton and the students of the school when on September 29, 1999 he summarily ordered the removal of the lists.

Newton has used the door of his classroom for expressive purposes since his arrival at Spotswood High School almost nine years ago. Although the door is festooned with news clippings, cartoons and other materials that Newton considers to be of value to high school students, only the two banned books lists were ordered removed.

In October, the ACLU of Virginia sent a letter to members of the Rockingham County School Board asking them to investigate the removal of the lists, but did not receive a reply. In late November, the civil liberties group sent another letter to the school board, demanding that the lists be returned to the door or that the teacher be given a formal hearing under the school’s policies for dealing with controversial materials. Again, there was no response.

Published annually, the list of books banned, includes revered and widely-read American fiction such as Huckleberry Finn, The Color Purple, Of Mice and Men, and Death of a Salesman. Newton was told the brochures contained three objectionable titles, The Joy of Gay Sex, Understanding Sexual Identity: A Book for Gay Teens & Their Friends, and Women on Top: How Real Life Has Changed Women’s Fantasies.

The purpose of the list, published annually in observation of Banned Books Week, is to educate the public about censorship.

“In the broadest sense, this is about a teacher’s right to teach, his students’ right to learn, and how the free expression clause of the Constitution must be factored in as part of the education equation,” said Kent Willis, Executive Director of the ACLU of Virginia. “Schools certainly have the right to determine curriculum and to judge teachers based on their performance, but when a high school English teacher cannot post the American Library Association’s list of banned books, something has gone terribly wrong.”

Chris Finan, president of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, praised Newton for refusing to accept his principal’s order without a fight. “Jeff Newton is defending not only his rights, but the rights of his students and the rest of us. The Rockingham schools are lucky to have such a brave and passionate teacher.”

In addition to Jeffrey Newton and three students, also serving as plaintiffs in the lawsuit are the American Library Association, the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, American Society of Journalists and Authors, the Association of American Publishers, Inc., and the National Association of College Stores.

In addition to Principal Slye, the complaint also names Rockingham County School Superintendent John H. Kidd and the Rockingham County School Board as defendants.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs are ACLU of Virginia Legal Director Rebecca K. Glenberg and Michael A. Bamberger with the law firm of Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal in New York.

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