Books Must Not Be Banned, ACLU Tells Plymouth-Canton Schools

Affiliate: ACLU of Michigan
January 20, 2012 12:45 pm

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DETROIT – In a letter today, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan urged the Plymouth-Canton Community School District to respect the constitutional rights of students and not ban the award-winning novels Beloved and Waterland from the Advanced Placement English curriculum. The books were flagged for removal following complaints from a student’s parents.

“It is alarming that a vocal minority has been successful in denying students these valuable works of literature,” said Loren Khogali, ACLU of Michigan Metro Detroit Branch president. “Shutting down ideas in the classroom not only raises constitutional concerns, but goes against the very essence of our educational system. This incident is a stark reminder of the threats still facing educational freedom.”

Last month, teachers in Plymouth-Canton Community Schools were instructed by the district’s interim superintendent to remove Graham Swift’s Waterland from the AP English curriculum. He also submitted Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer-winning Beloved to be reviewed by an independent book review committee. The fate of Waterland will be decided when it is referred for review in the coming weeks. The decisions were made in response to complaints from two parents even though, in at least one case, the offended student was given an alternative book to read.

Since then, other parents and students have overwhelmingly opposed the ban during public meetings. An independent review committee is expected to release recommendations regarding the removal of Beloved tomorrow.

In its letter, the ACLU of Michigan reminded the district that although schools have broad discretion in setting curriculum, the U.S. Supreme Court has held repeatedly that banning books because they offend some runs afoul of the First Amendment. While parents have the right to guide their own child’s education, that right does not extend to restricting other students’ educational opportunities.

“Removing the books would not only deny all AP English students the opportunity to read, debate and learn from these two critically acclaimed literary works,” wrote the ACLU of Michigan. “But it would send the message to students that censorship of ideas is permitted in our democracy. Such a lesson contradicts fundamental constitutional values of our county – values that public schools are designed to teach.”

Waterland, a tale of history and a family’s myth, was short-listed for the prestigious Booker prize when it was published, and the New York Times named the Pulitzer Prize-winning Beloved as “the single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years.” Beloved tells the heart wrenching story of an escaped slave haunted by the decision to kill her daughter rather than let her be recaptured.

The parents complained that Beloved’s exploration of sex, ghosts and infanticide was inappropriate for students. They also complained that Waterland contained sexual passages.

Since the American Library Association started the Banned Books Week tradition in 1982, more than 11,000 books have been challenged, 348 being reported to the ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom in 2010 alone. According to the ALA, books are most frequently banned in schools and school libraries and sex, profanity, and racism are the most frequent reasons cited.

The ACLU began defending banned books with James Joyce’s Ulysses in 1933.

The letter was signed by Khogali and Michael Steinberg and Sarah Mehta of the ACLU of Michigan.

To read the ACLU’s letter, go to:

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