I’ve written before about the crying need to educate the administrators of public schools about censorship. Recent news stories have focused again on the peculiar learning disabilities of that group.
To begin with an example that goes beyond library censorship, consider this week’s case of the high school prom in Itawamba County, Mississippi. The school district prohibited a female student, who self-identified as lesbian, from wearing a tuxedo or bringing a same-sex date to the prom. The student contacted the ACLU, who wrote a letter to the school district, explaining the applicable law and demanding that the student be allowed to attend as she planned. This is not a difficult or obscure area of law. The applicable statutes are clear and recent court precedents strongly supported the position of the student and the ACLU. But the hard-headed school board, probably acting on very bad legal advice, dug in their heels, cancelling the prom altogether. The result, drearily predictable to everyone other than the school administrators, was a US District Court decision finding that the school had violated the student’s First Amendment rights in three different ways. The student is now in a position to sue the school district for punitive and compensatory damages.
One might hope that extensive news coverage would educate educators everywhere, putting them on notice that they have a thing or two to learn about the First Amendment. The Itawamba County incident drew international attention, appearing in all of the major US news services and in at least a dozen languages internationally. Similarly, international news coverage and ridicule fell on the Riverside County, California, school district that pulled copies of the dictionary from elementary school classrooms (because it contained dirty words), and on a Culpeper County, Virginia, school district that dropped (or tried to drop) Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl from the curriculum.
Sadly, recent news indicates that many administrators missed these educational opportunities. In Hillsborough County, Florida, a challenge is underway against Augusten Burroughs’ memoir Running With Scissors. Never mind that we’re talking here about high school students or that the book was a New York Times bestseller or was made into a movie. At the Rancocas Valley school district in New Jersey, some parents have formally objected to Revolutionary Voices and several other gay-themed books, proclaiming that “they are detrimental to children,” and “we need to protect our children.” Meanwhile, in Huntington Beach, California, a controversy continues over Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. The district has determined that the book is “inappropriate” for minors and requires students to present a signed parental permission slip to read it. This is a major literary work by a major American writer, and like so many other great works of literature, it is frequently used – and frequently challenged – in educational institutions.
While I think the objecting parents deserve a certain amount of criticism, the school boards in these cases are far more blameworthy. I don’t understand why anyone would actually try to ban a book, but I understand that the opinions of parents will vary, and that many have no training in or awareness of the ethics or legalities of Free Speech. But when it comes to principals, superintendents, and school boards, it’s part of their job to understand those things. Those in charge of education ought to understand the educational value of literature, are supposed to value expanded horizons and giving a voice to the voiceless. The ethics of their profession demands a deep respect for Freedom of Expression. Above all, school administrators need to understand the basics – just the basics – of those parts of the law that address censorship and Free Speech in public schools. Book challenges happen constantly, yet each one seems to be treated as if it were something new, as if nobody understood the law, as if nobody knew that most book challenges fail. Is that a failure to learn, or a refusal to learn?