After a convoluted series of events spanning at least a decade, the school board in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana last week removed Harper Lee’s classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird from classrooms throughout the district. After some parents of high school students recently complained that the book contained “offensive language” and “themes…[that] may not be suitable for children,” district officials conveniently remembered that it had already been banned there in 2000. Only newer teachers, who were unaware of the ban, had been using it in class, but their students didn’t get a chance to finish reading the book before it was pulled.
The question of how and why the book was banned in the first place is not easily answered. One thing, however, is certain: The ban was unilaterally imposed by a single employee, former Superintendent Jim Hoyle, who left the district in 2006. According to an August 2002 article from the New Orleans Times-Picayune (not freely available online; see below for full citation), Hoyle said that two years earlier he’d removed the book — and the 1962 movie based on it — from district libraries “because some parents thought it contained ‘some objectionable words.’” By October 2002 Hoyle changed his story, claiming that he did not remove the book, but only the movie — because “several parents of special education students complained, saying their children were hurt by some of its material.”
In any case, Plaquemines Parish school librarians were alarmed by Hoyle’s actions and proposed to the school board a formal policy on reconsideration of materials that would ensure books and other items could not be so easily removed from library collections or classroom. The policy included a strong statement in support of intellectual freedom:
[F]reedom of inquiry and access to information, regardless of the format or viewpoints of the presentation, are fundamental to the development of our society. These rights must not be denied or abridged because of age, sex, race, religion, national origin or social or political views.
Some board members, however, were concerned that this did not give parents enough control over their children’s reading. They pushed for the policy to clarify that “parents’ rights supersede those of the child.” Once that provision was added, the board passed the policy unanimously in October 2002. But it didn’t last all that long: Most of the district’s policies seem to have been revamped around 2010 by the current superintendent, Denis Rousselle.
The librarian-drafted policy on materials challenges is absent from Plaquemines’ current policy manual; instead, the initial authority to respond to challenges has now been handed to school principals (Policy IFA, “Procedure for Handling Criticism of Materials”). If the principal’s response does not satisfy the complainant, the challenged material is then reviewed by “a committee appointed by the Superintendent or his/her designee.” In other words, if one principal agrees that a challenged item should not be in a library or classroom, that item can once again be removed from Plaquemines Parish schools just as easily as To Kill a Mockingbird was 12 years ago.
In the wake of the spurious ban’s revival last week, the Louisiana chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union called for it to be rescinded. ACLU-LA Executive Director Marjorie Esman said: “The ban was flatly unlawful when it was imposed, remains so, and should be lifted immediately.” (Note that recent news stories report that the ban dates to 2001, because that’s what Rousselle and the school board said last week. This is just more evidence that district administrators don’t remember how or why the ban was imposed in the first place, since Hoyle himself said in the articles from 2002 that he removed the book and/or the movie in 2000.)
There may in fact be reason for optimism: Rousselle says the district is currently “putting together a committee of students and employees to re-evaluate…book selection.” We hope this means that To Kill a Mockingbird will receive the careful consideration it deserves but didn’t get over the past decade. (Until the district forgot it was banned, that is.)
Below are citations for the newspaper articles that detail the circumstances of the 2000 ban. They are not available for open access online, but can be found through the subscription database NewsBank. Ask your friendly librarian!
Barbier, Sandra. “Librarians scout new complaint process.” The Times-Picayune [New Orleans] 15 Aug 2002: National p. 1.
–. “Plaquemines crafts policy for school libraries.” The Times-Picayune [New Orleans] 11 Oct 2002: National p. 1.
DeBerry, Jarvis. “Killing education over a few bad words.” The Times-Picayune [New Orleans] 16 Aug 2002: Metro p. 7.
“Out of circulation.” Editorial. The Times-Picayune [New Orleans] 16 Aug 2002: Metro p. 6.
Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.