A North Carolina lawyer who has previously advocated for censorship in his local school district was last week approved by the legislature to serve a four-year term on the State Board of Education. Most notably, J. Todd Chasteen was involved in a 2013-2014 effort to ban Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits from the curriculum for sophomore Honors English, referring to the classic work as “a sex book.”
A Watauga County parent filed a complaint against the book in October 2013 after it was assigned to her son in a sophomore honors English class. The parent called the book “graphic,” “immoral” and “pornographic,” but the first review committee unanimously disagreed with her assessment that the depictions of sex, rape, and violence are unacceptable for high school students. She appealed the decision, and a second committee also unanimously agreed that the book should remain in the curriculum.
A final appeal of the two unanimous decisions left the book’s fate in the hands of the Watauga County School Board, which finally voted 3-2 to retain it in February 2014. That final meeting was held in the Watauga County Courthouse due to security concerns after teachers had received anonymous threatening letters during the months-long public debate.
Although Chasteen was not the parent who originally filed the challenge to Allende’s novel, he was nonetheless deeply involved in the effort. He spoke in favor of censorship at a February 10, 2014 meeting, where he claimed that The House of the Spirits is rife with “ ‘deviancy’ and child pornography.” He also implied that “any book containing sexual content was devoid of educational merit,” earning a strong rebuke from the National Coalition Against Censorship and American Booksellers for Free Expression in a letter sent to state legislators last year, citing the 1948 Supreme Court decision in McCollum v. Board of Education:
Purging classrooms of works that contain sexual situations and other content that some find offensive would eliminate scores of esteemed literary works by Joyce, Faulkner, Morrison, Vonnegut, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Dostoyevsky, and many others. As these examples suggest, any attempt ‘to eliminate everything that is objectionable . . . will leave public education in shreds. Nothing but educational confusion and a discrediting of the public school system can result . . . .’
Despite the warning from NCAC and ABFE, however, the North Carolina legislature met in joint session on June 30 and voted 157-1 to approve Gov. Pat McCrory’s appointment of Chasteen to the State Board of Education, where he will no doubt continue his censorious campaign to purge curricula of challenging and thought-provoking classics.
Contributing Editor Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.