SIDESCROLLERS: When One Citizen Takes Away the Rights of Parents

October 1, 2012
By

Banned Books Week is underway, and we’re taking the time to examine some of the books that have been challenged and banned in libraries and schools. To kick off the week, let’s take a look at SideScrollers, the most recent book to fall victim to censorship.

The video game-themed graphic novel SideScrollers by Matthew Loux has been removed from a Connecticut school district’s ninth grade summer reading list after a citizen complained of profanity and sexual references in the book.

Enfield citizen Christie Bosco filed the complaint, but claimed that her effort to have the book removed from the list was “not a question of censorship,” even though SideScrollers was not required reading and her nieces and nephews in the school could simply choose a different book from the list.

Sidescrollers was chosen as one of the Young Adult Library Services Association’s Great Graphic Novels for Teens in 2008, and was praised by Publishers Weekly as “wholesome…but still entertaining for young teens or those with a sense of humor.” It recounts the adventures of three teenaged slacker geeks who are roused to action when a female friend becomes romantically involved with loutish quarterback Dick. Along the way, the trio engages in mildly vulgar but realistic teenage banter and vandalizes Dick’s car with anatomically correct graffiti.

It is unclear whether the Enfield Board of Education followed its own policy on Challenges to the Use of Educational Resources, which states in part that “no parent nor group of parents has the right to negate the use of educational resources for students other than his/her own child.” The policy document also states that challenged materials should be read and considered by a committee comprised of six teachers, two librarians, and one principal. Their duties include:

evaluating the resource for its strength, weakness, and value as a whole and not in part; the impact of the entire work being more important than the words, phrases, or incidents out of which it is made

With the support of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, Association of American Publishers, The Independent Book Publishers Association, PEN American Center, and National Council of Teachers of English, CBLDF wrote a letter arguing for the retention of SideScrollers on the school’s summer reading list:

September 19, 2012

Dr. Jeffrey Schumann
Superintendent
Enfield School District
27 Shaker Rd
Enfield, CT 06082

Dear Dr. Schumann,

We are writing to express our concern over the removal of the graphic novel Sidescrollers (Oni Press) from high school summer reading lists in the Enfield School District. We are concerned both with the merits of the removal of the book from the list, and with the procedures the district followed in taking this action.

As we understand it, the District requires a written request for reconsideration, which triggers a review of the challenged material by a committee to evaluate the merits of the material and make a recommendation to the Board of Education. None of these steps was taken in the present case. The ban was triggered by a verbal complaint from a person who is not even the parent of a child in the school. The District’s policy contemplates challenges only by parents. It states that “no parent nor group of parents has the right to negate the use of educational resources for students other than his/her own child.” (6163.1a) (Emphasis added.) This is a reasonable restriction, since it allows complaints to be resolved by providing alternative assignments, rather than restricting the access of all students because of the concerns of some parents. In the case of the summer reading list, five alternatives were already offered.

In removing the book, you have allowed the vocal complaints of one resident —not even a parent—not only to dictate what texts student may read and discuss but to undermine the judgment of your professional staff. The teachers of Enfield and Enrico Fermi high schools have been compiling summer reading lists based on professional reviews and the opinions of Media Specialists without controversy for years. Sidescrollers has been an item on the reading list for several years, since the graphic novel category was introduced.

Sidescrollers, Matt Loux’s popular graphic novel about three slacker friends was named one of the Top Ten Great Graphic Novels for Teens in 2008 by the American Library Association. The book’s anti-bullying and anti-drinking message is delivered in a way that teens find organic rather than preachy, through dialogue that approximates the way these characters would really speak to one another. For that reason, it speaks to young people—and specifically to students who might be reluctant readers—in a way that more sanitized texts might not.

As public officials, school boards are bound by the obligation to adhere to constitutional principles. School officials “may not remove books from library shelves simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books and seek by their removal to ‘prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion.’” Board of Education v. Pico, 457 U.S. 853, 872 (1982)(plurality opinion). The failure to follow the district’s own procedures and the unwarranted removal of the book raise serious due process and First Amendment concerns. The proposal to create a system to review texts in the future for summer reading does nothing to address these serious concerns. It remains to be seen whether such a system, if implemented, adheres to constitutional standards, which require that the selection of materials be based solely on educationally-sound criteria. If instead the purpose is to rate or evaluate books based on whether they contain “controversial” content, that will raise not only additional constitutional concerns, but also questions about the nature and quality of the education students receive.

For your information, we suggest you refer to “The Student’s Right to Read,” a guideline established by the National Council of Teachers of English and available online at: http://www.ncte.org/positions/statements/righttoreadguideline. In addition, NCAC offers an online Guide to the First Amendment in Schools, available at: http://ncac.org/education/schools/index.cfm. We hope these materials will be useful to you and others involved in this discussion.

We strongly urge you rescind your ban on Sidescrollers. Those who object to this book are entitled to their view, but they may not impose it on others. They have no constitutional right to restrict students’ access to a book because it conflicts with their personal values. We urge you to stand by the principle that is so essential to individual freedom, democracy, and a good education: the right to read, inquire, question, and think for ourselves.

If we can be of further assistance, please do not hesitate to contact us.
Sincerely,

Joan Bertin
Executive Director
National Coalition Against Censorship

Chris Finan
President
American Booksellers Foundation For Free Expression

Charles Brownstein
Executive Director
Comic Book Legal Defense Fund

Judith Platt
Director, Free Expression Advocacy
Association of American Publishers

Florie Kichler
President
The Independent Book Publishers Association

Larry Siems
Director, Freedom to Write & International Programs
PEN American Center

Millie Davis
Senior Developer, Affiliate Groups and Public Outreach
National Council of Teachers of English

cc: Anne MacKiernan, Chief Academic Officer
Kevin Fealy, Jr., Member, Enfield Board of Education
Tina LeBlanc, Member, Enfield Board of Education
Vincent M. Grady, Vice Chairman, Enfield Board of Education
Timothy Neville, Chairman, Enfield Board of Education
Joyce Hall, Member, Enfield Board of Education
Jennifer Rancourt, Member, Enfield Board of Education
Charles L. Johnson III, Member, Enfield Board of Education
Donna Szewczak, Secretary, Enfield Board of Education

CBLDF Executive Director Charles Brownstein took a guest spot at ICv2′s Talk Back, writing an article about the removal of SideScrollers from the school’s summer reading list. In his article for ICv2, Brownstein breaks down how the removal of the book is an act of censorship, violates the school’s own policies, and interferes with the rights of other parents:

Fundamentally, what appears to have occurred is that one individual took away other parents’ freedom to choose whether or not the book was correct for their kids to read, despite the fact that the school’s own policies state: “no parent nor group of parents has the right to negate the use of education resources for students other than his/her own child.”  One person’s preferences should not take away other parents’ ability to choose.

You can read the rest of Brownstein’s editorial here. He defended the book again on ICv2, when another editorial on the website accused CBLDF of “sloppiness” because the book was still available in local stores and libraries:

Mr. Loux’s book was named one of the Top Ten Great Graphic Novels for Teens in 2008 by the American Library Association and was recognized by educators in the Enfield system as having value for students in the school. Descriptions on the content of each of the books on the reading list were provided, and the district advises parents to be active in their child’s reading, and use these books to open up conversations. Removing the book as an option for students to use in their summer reading assignment has produced the result that one person’s values have impinged on the rights of parents and students to have conversations about this education resource. The fact that the district did so without adhering to their own policies is, to borrow Mr. Stock’s term, apparent sloppiness that has led to an unacceptable result. It is for that reason that the CBLDF has spoken in support of rescinding the ban and restoring the book as a resource that all of the district’s parents and students can choose.

At the time of this writing, the school district has yet to respond to CBLDF’s letter.

Given their visual nature, graphic novels and comic books are among the most-challenged books in libraries and schools. CBLDF is an official sponsor of Banned Books Week, which takes place September 30 – October 6, 2012. Please help support CBLDF’s defense of your right to read by making a donation or becoming a member of the CBLDF!