A Summer of Attacks on the Freedom to Read

September 7, 2015
By

Labor Day marks the unofficial end of summer for many people. Vacations are over and school has started once again, but CBLDF didn’t get to take a break this summer. In the last couple of years, we’ve seen a new trend: Censors are as active — if not more so — during the summer months! Once again, we had a very busy summer defending the right to read around the country! Let’s take a look at some of the challenges we faced…

FunhomecoverThe Crafton Hills College Challenge

In June, we encountered a rare higher education challenge in California at Crafton Hills College. The issue arose after a 20-year-old student and her parents publicly raised objections to four graphic novels covered in English 250 in May — after she had completed the class. Tara Shultz, who is working towards an Associate Degree in English, knew when she began the course in January that it focused on graphic novels, but said she “expected Batman and Robin, not pornography.” Shultz contacted her parents, and the family challenged the inclusion of four of the ten books taught by Associate Professor Ryan Bartlett: Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, Y: The Last Man Vol. 1 by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra, and The Sandman Vol. 2: The Doll’s House by Neil Gaiman and various artists. Shultz remained in the class through the end of the semester on May 21.

The college affirmed that it would not be “eradicating” any graphic novels from the course, but it initially stated that future syllabi for the graphic novel course include a disclaimer “so students have a better understanding of the course content,” a violation of academic freedom. CBLDF joined the National Coalition Against Censorship in urging Crafton Hills College not to require a disclaimer about potentially offensive content on future syllabi for a graphic novel class. Subsequently, the San Bernardino Community College District reversed course and left the decision up to individual instructors.

PalomarPalomar by Gilbert Hernandez

CBLDF learned in early July that when classes resume at New Mexico’s Rio Rancho High School this fall, the acclaimed graphic novel Palomar by Gilbert Hernandez will be back on shelves in the library — but students under 18 will need a parent’s signature to check it out.

This story first broke back in late February with a heavily biased news report from Albuquerque-area TV station KOAT, which unquestioningly labeled the critically-acclaimed comic “sexual, graphic, and not suitable for children.” Catrenna Lopez, the mother of a Rio Rancho High School freshman, said she wanted the book off school library shelves because it contained “child pornography pictures and child abuse pictures.” A Rio Rancho school district review committee voted to retain Gilbert Hernandez’s Palomar in a high school library collection in March, but Lopez appealed the decision to the school board.

Although Palomar will technically be back in the RRHS library, the parental signature requirement still sets up an access barrier for the vast majority of students based on one parent’s complaint. The special treatment for one book — apparently an administrative decision rather than a recommendation of the review committee — violates the spirit of Rio Rancho Public Schools’ Library Bill of Rights and its challenge policy which says book challenges are to be treated “objectively, unemotionally, and as a routine matter.” Palomar has already been judged appropriate for the high school collection, and that means all students should have unrestricted access to it.

The Kite RunnerThe Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

The fate of Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner in the Buncombe County, North Carolina, school system was finally decided in early July after months of back-and-forth: By unanimous vote, the school board decided to keep the book in 10th grade English classrooms.

The Kite Runner was challenged earlier this year by parent Lisa Baldwin, who objected to depictions of “homosexuality and sexually explicit scenes.” A school-level review committee decided in May that the book was appropriate for the Honors English class, especially since teacher Brooke Bowman gave students the option to skip the potentially disturbing rape scene or to choose an alternate reading assignment, All Quiet on the Western Front. Baldwin appealed the first review committee’s decision to a district-wide review committee, which also unanimously recommended that the school board reinstate Hosseini’s novel. In her appeal to the district review committee, Baldwin added another objection to the book, saying that it “inaccurately assign[s] Judeo-Christian characteristics to a Muslim god.”

The review committees’ decisions were forwarded to the county school board, the final arbiter of the challenge. The school board voted unanimously in support of the novel. The school board’s decision is final, so Baldwin cannot appeal her demand for the book’s removal any further.

librarianbasraThe Librarian of Basra and Nasreen’s Secret School by Jeannette Winter

In late July, CBLDF joined a Kids’ Right to Read-led coalition to defend two children’s books being challenged in Duval County, Florida, over concerns that the books promote Islam and are critical of the US’s role in the Middle East.

The children’s books in question are The Librarian of Basra and Nasreen’s Secret School, both of which take place in the Middle East and explore issues of free speech and access to information in the region. The first centers on a young woman protecting a library in Iraq during war and is based on a true story. The second focuses on a young girl in Afghanistan, who attends a secret school in order to obtain an education. Although these books offer young readers a different perspective on oppression and censorship, some parents in the community are concerned that the books are encouraging children to engage with the materials in a religious manner — specifically that the books will encourage children to read the Koran and pray to Mohammad. They have demanded that the books be removed from the third grade curriculum in the district. Some parents started a petition in protest, which was fueled by a viral online campaign.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti has so far defended the books, and the school has allowed parents to opt their children out of reading the books.

Some Girls Are coverSome Girls Are by Courtney Summers

Based on a complaint from one parent, the principal of West Ashley High School in Charleston, South Carolina has removed Courtney Summers’ novel Some Girls Are as an option on a summer reading list for freshman Honors English.

In a letter to the editor of the Post and Courier newspaper, parent Melanie MacDonald said she and her daughter both downloaded Some Girls Are to their Kindles, planning to read it at the same time. Before long, however, MacDonald reported that “my jaw dropped and I was appalled and disgusted that my child (make no mistake that high school kids are still children) had been assigned this as required reading.” When MacDonald communicated her concerns to school officials, the WAHS English Department initially responded by adding another option to the reading list: the 1943 classic A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Although MacDonald and her daughter had two alternatives to Some Girls Are, she filed a formal challenge to the book.

Charleston County School District’s challenge policy says that the school board should make the final decision “based upon careful examination and study of the challenged material,” but WAHS principal Lee Runyon pulled the book because “we felt like we needed to try to accommodate the parent’s concerns, which had some validity, and make a common-sense decision.” After Runyon pulled the book, he consulted with district English teachers and replaced it with Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak — which explores themes similar to Some Girls Are and is a frequently challenged book itself.

curiousThe Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

In early August, CBLDF joined a coalition led by the Kids’ Right to Read Project to protest the actions taken at Lincoln High School in Leon County, Florida, where Principal Allen Burch violated school policy by bypassing  committee review and pulled The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time from the school’s summer reading program.

The book is told from the perspective of an autistic 15-year-old Christopher John Francis Boone, who is determined to solve the mysterious death of his neighbor’s dog. Although the award-winning book has received critical acclaim, some parents in the community sent complaints about profanity and “religious skepticism” in the book to Principal Burch, who then made the ad hoc decision to simply pull the book from the school’s summer reading list without consulting a review committee per policy. His reason: He wanted to “give the opportunity for the parents to parent.”

Despite protest, the school board stood behind Burch’s decision. “Parents’ concerns come first. That is what we do best — listen to parents’ concerns and adjust as needed,” said Alva Striplin, a member of the school board who has openly protested the book’s inclusion on the district’s required reading list. “It is solely the language of the book that is the problem.”

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