The Curious Incident of the Wilson County School Board

curiousWhen books are challenged in libraries and schools, one of the most important things for governing boards and administrators to do is have a clear and complete challenge policy already in place–and to actually follow it. Since last month the Wilson County School Board in Tennessee has been illustrating how not to go about it in their handling of a controversy over Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

On the morning of May 9, we heard that the board had voted to remove the book from reading lists for 9th grade honors English classes based on a complaint from board member Wayne McNeese, who said “[t]he F-bomb is pretty common in that book, and that’s what I have a problem with.” That same afternoon, however, we were obliged to post an update when the board unofficially reversed course upon discovering that the book they’d just voted to remove was in fact being removed–right from students’ hands in the last few weeks of the school term.

Last week the board officially rescinded its earlier vote, but as Betsy Phillips observed in the Nashville Scene, at least two members still seem “kind of cool with what they did.” McNeese and fellow board member Larry Tomlinson both tried out variations on a familiar theme, claiming that they don’t want to ban anything but just don’t think students should be reading the book because it has bad words. (What’s the difference? We’ll never know.) Said Tomlinson: “This particular book that we’re talking about; I certainly don’t believe in censorship, but I believe that we could find a book where the author could express themselves and get their point across in another way than what this particular author did.”

Unfortunately for Tomlinson, literature doesn’t really work that way; books are not interchangeable Lego blocks that can be swapped out for another one of the same size and shape. Like all authors, Haddon chose his words carefully to tell the story he wanted to tell. Removing the book from the curriculum based on some of those words is in fact censorship.

For further guidance in this regard, we encourage the board to look to its own materials selection policy, which reads in part:

The Board supports principles of intellectual freedom inherent in the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States and expressed in the Library Bill of Rights of the American Library Association.

A footnote appended to that section cites the landmark 1981 school censorship case Island Trees School District v. Pico. A key conclusion from Supreme Court Justice William Brennan’s majority opinion in Pico is that “local school boards may not remove books from school libraries simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books.” Brennan does make a distinction between library books and required reading from the curriculum–which is why most schools today allow students or parents to request an alternative to any book assigned for a class. This was the case in Wilson County, as Interim Director of Schools Mary Ann Sparks told the Tennessean newspaper last month.

But while the Wilson County Schools materials selection policy expresses broad support for freedom of speech, it does not currently include a formal process for handling book challenges. It simply says that “if a complaint is made, it should be made to the Director of Schools or the appropriate instructional supervisor” but does not outline what happens after that or who makes the decisions regarding challenged books. This is something that should be developed–in close consultation with teachers and librarians, we emphasize–so that in future the school board can avoid the confusion that currently reigns.

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Contributing Editor Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.