ACLU of Maryland Calls for Acclaimed Books to be Returned to School Shelves

Affiliate: ACLU of Maryland
December 8, 2005 12:00 am

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WESTMINSTER, MD – Following a petition drive by Winters Mill High School students, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland is calling for an end to the censorship that has stripped several books from the shelves of school libraries.

The ACLU sent a letter today to Carroll County Schools Superintendent Charles I. Ecker asking him to rescind his decision to remove all copies of the award-winning “The Earth, My Butt and Other Big Round Things” by Carolyn Mackler from middle and high school libraries. The letter also calls on Ecker to rescind earlier decisions to remove “Born Too Short: The Confessions of an Eighth Grade Basket Case” by Dan Elish, “Leaving Disneyland” by Alexander Parsons, “Beet Fields” by Gary Paulsen, and “Whistle Me Home” by Barbara Wersba.

“The decision to ban these books is a clear violation of the First Amendment,” said David Rocah, Staff Attorney for the ACLU of Maryland. “We are greatly heartened by the campaign launched by students to defend their right to read quality fiction, chosen by library professionals for its merit, free from misguided censorship by school administrators.”

For more than 20 years, the Supreme Court has held that “the First Amendment rights of students may be directly and sharply implicated by the removal of books from the shelves of a school library.” ). Although school officials still retain discretion to remove books based on their “educational suitability,” or because they are “pervasively vulgar,” the ACLU says that such a rationale does not apply to the books in question.

“The Earth, My Butt and Other Big Round Things” is a critically acclaimed work of fiction for young teens, that tells the story of an overweight girl who feels like a misfit in her own family. It traces her development into a more independent and confident young woman, and deals with issues of date rape, body image, self-mutilation, and sexuality.

The Carroll County Public School’s own Reconsideration Committee recommended that the book be kept in the schools’ libraries.

“Libraries have long been at the center of the struggle to preserve everyone’s freedom to access diverse ideas, information and opinions,” said Richard Griffiths, an attorney with the ACLU of Maryland. “The Superintendent’s decision to ban these books is a wrongheaded move for an educator, who instead should encourage a thriving learning environment that is able to handle tough issues facing students.”

A copy of the letter follows:

December 8, 2005

VIA FACSIMILE AND U.S. MAIL

Charles I. Ecker
Superintendent
Carroll County Public Schools
125 North Court St.
Westminster, MD 21157

Dear Superintendent Ecker:

I write to express our strong concern over your recent decision to order all copies of “The Earth, My Butt and Other Big Round Things,” by Carolyn Mackler (“The Earth”), removed from the middle and high school libraries throughout the Carroll County school system. We understand that this action follows earlier decisions to remove “Born Too Short: The Confessions of an Eighth Grade Basket Case,” by Dan Elish (“Born Too Short”), from middle and high school libraries; to remove “Leaving Disneyland” by Alexander Parsons from the high school libraries; and to remove both “Beet Fields,” by Gary Paulsen, and “Whistle Me Home”, by Barbara Wersba, from middle school libraries. We believe that these actions are clear violations of the First Amendment, and urge you to rescind the decisions.

The Earth is a critically aclaimed and award-winning work of fiction for young teens*, telling the story of an overweight and lonely teen who feels like a misfit in her own family. It traces her development into a more independent and confident young woman, and deals with serious and relevant (to teens) issues such as date rape, body image, self-mutilation, and sexuality.

“Born Too Short” is also an award-winning work of fiction for teen readers.** It is the story of a 13-year-old boy who is extremely jealous of his best friend, a good-looking athlete who gets the attention of all the girls. When the boy wishes for awful things to happen to that friend leading the latter to experience a series of disasters, the hero sets out to reverse the spell.

“Leaving Disneyland,” an award winning first novel***, looks into the life of a man who is nearing the end of a 16-year prison sentence. The book highlights the struggles he faces in prison and as he prepares for life outside the prison walls as a law-abiding citizen. In order to reshape his life, he must face the violence of his past and an unpaid debt to the gang that had protected him.

“The Beet Fields” is a coming-of-age story about a sixteen-year-old boy who escapes his troubled home in the summer of 1955 to work on a farm, and begins a journey that teaches him about about official corruption, friendship, life, death and the mysteries of sex. It was chosen by the American Library Association in 2001 as one of the Best Books for Young Adults.

“Whistle Me Home” is the story of a young woman who turns to alcohol after her friendship with the new boy in town ripens into love that must remain unrequited when she discovers the boy is gay. The book was chosen by the American Library Association in 1998 as one of the Best Books for Young Adults.

For at least the past twenty years, it has been clear that “the First Amendment rights of students may be directly and sharply implicated by the removal of books from the shelves of a school library.” Island Trees Union Free Sch. Dist. v. Pico, 457 U.S. 853, 866 (1982). The plurality opinion in that case recognized the unique role of school libraries, holding that students must always remain free to inquire, to study and to evaluate, to gain new maturity and understanding. The school library is the principal locus of such freedom. . . . [where] a student can literally explore the unknown, and discover areas of interest and thought not covered by the prescribed curriculum. . . . Th[e] student learns that a library is a place to test or expand upon ideas presented to him, in or out of the classroom.

Id. at 868-69 (citations and quotations omitted). Although school officials still retain discretion to remove books based on their “educational suitability,” or because they are “pervasively vulgar,” id. at 871, we do not believe such a rationale could be applicable to the books in question. Indeed, the many awards and praise The Earth has received – by professionals evaluating its suitability precisely for teen audiences – and the recommendation of the Carroll County Public Schools Reconsideration Committee that it be kept in the schools’ libraries, virtually precludes such an argument. More importantly, it is clear that books cannot be removed simply because they offend the “personal values, morals, or tastes” of some administrators (or parents). Indeed, the defendants in Pico admitted that their evaluation of the books at issue in that case was based on precisely those factors, something that the plurality thought was evidence the decision was improper. Id. at 873 & n.23.

Both before and after Pico, lower federal courts have repeatedly and consistently invalidated decisions to ban books from school library shelves, in cases that are markedly similar to the decisions at issue here. For example, in Counts v. Cedarville Sch. Dist., 295 F. Supp. 2d 996 (W.D. Ark. 2003), the court held that a school board’s decision to restrict access to books in the Harry Potter series (by requiring parental permission to borrow them) because they would “promote disobedience and disrespect for authority” and because they dealt with “witchcraft,” and “the occult,” id. at 1002, violated the students’ First Amendment rights. In Case v. Unified Sch. Dist. No. 233, 908 F. Supp. 864 (D. Kan. 1995), the court held that a school board’s decision to remove Annie on my Mind, a novel depicting a romantic relationship between two teenage girls, violated the First Amendment. In Sheck v. Baileyville Sch. Comm., 530 F. Supp. 679 (D. Maine 1982), the court granted a preliminary injunction ordering the book 365 Days, a compilation of soldiers’ accounts of the Vietman War, returned to school library shelves after it had been removed due to the expletives therein. Minarcini v. Strongsville City Sch. Dist., 541 F2d 577 (6th Cir. 1976) invalidated a school board’s decision to remove Cat’s Cradle and Catch 22 from the school libraries, utilizing an analysis very similar to that later adopted by the Supreme Court in Pico. In Salvail v. Nashua Bd. of Educ., 469 F. Supp. 1269 (D.N.H. 1979), the court found that a school board violated the First Amendment when it decided to remove Ms. Magazine from a high school library, because the magazine contained ads for vibrators, and contraceptives, and had articles “dealing with lesbianism and witchcraft, and gay material.” Id. at 1272. Finally, in Right to Read Defense Committee of Chelsea v. Sch. Committee of City of Chelsea, 454 F. Supp. 703 (D. Mass. 1978), the court held that a school board’s decision to remove an anthology of student prose and poetry, following complaints from a parent about offensive language in the book, violated the First Amendment.

We are greatly concerned by what appears to be a pattern of removing books from the school libraries because they deal frankly and honestly with problems that teens face, because they deal with controversial subjects, or because they contain some profanity. As to the latter, Justice Brandeis famously said that “one man’s vulgarity is another’s lyric.” Cohen v. California, 403 U.S. 15, 25 (1971) (Brandies, J. concurring). More importantly, he pointed out that “much linguistic expression serves a dual communicative function: it conveys not only ideas capable of relatively precise, detached explication, but otherwise inexpressible emotions as well. In fact, words are often chosen as much for their emotive as their cognitive force.” Id. at 26. In short, profanity is often a powerful and necessary part of fine literature, and it use is as old as human language. See, e.g. Natalie Angier, Almost Before We Spoke, We Swore, New York Times, Sept. 20, 2005 (available at www.nytimes.com/2005/09/20/science/20curs.html?8dpc) (summarizing recent linguistic research on swearing). We do not and could not assert that schools must purchase these books for their libraries. But we believe that the law is clear that they cannot be purged from such libraries for constitutionally suspect reasons.

If we have misunderstood, or been misinformed, about what has happened, we would very much like to know that. And if you believe that there are constitutionally sound reasons for the actions that have been taken to remove these books, we would like to know them. We are happy to meet with you at your convenience to discuss our concerns. Thank you for considering our views.

Sincerely,

David Rocah
Staff Attorney

* The book has received the following awards: Printz Honor award for excellence in young adult fiction by the Young Adult Library Services Association in 2004 (1 of 4 books so honored that year); chosen by the American Library Association as a Best Book for Young Adults; Publishers Weekly Cuffie Award winner for Best Book Title; Michigan Library Association Thumbs Up! Honor Book; and the International Reading Association’s 2005 Young Adults’ Choice. The book has also been nominated for the following awards: 2006 Nevada Young Readers’ Award; 2006 Abraham Lincoln Illinois High School Book Award; Garden State Teen Book Award; 2007 Volunteer State Book Award; 2006 Great Lakes Great Books award; 2005-2006 Colorado Blue Spruce Book Award; 2006 South Carolina Association of School Librarians Book Award.

** The book was chosen Book for the Teenage by the New York Public Library in 2003, and listed as a Young Adults’ Choice by the International Reading Association in 2004.

*** The book was the winner of the 2001 AWP/Thomas Dunne Books Award for the Novel; winner of the 2002 Violet Crown Book Award from the Texas Writers’ League; finalist for the 2002 PEN West Award for Fiction; and finalist for The Great Lakes Colleges Association 2002 New Writers Award.

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