Censorship 2014: Summer Reading Under Attack

Since most of the challenges and bans that we cover happen in schools, the summers have typically been slow news months for us in past years. So, naturally this year we took notice when challenge after challenge to books that had been assigned as summer reading popped up across the country. Collectively, this new and unfortunate trend registers as one of our top news stories of 2014.

One of the objectives of summer reading assignments is to keep students mentally engaged and to help them develop a lifelong leisure reading habit. For that reason, the books assigned tend to have broad appeal for teens and address topics that affect them in real life, such as bullying, sexuality, drugs, and drinking. Of course, these same topics also lead to challenges from adults who find them objectionable. Here is a recap of all the summer reading challenges, bans, and fiascoes that we covered this year:

Pensacola Principal Cancels Little Brother Summer Reading Program

The fun began in early June, when a Pensacola principal cancelled an entire One Book/One School summer reading program because Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother contained “language” and “overtures.” In communication with Mary Kate Griffith, the teacher who had arranged the program, Doctorow heard that the principal also objected to “the book’s positive view of questioning authority [and] lauding ‘hacker culture.’” The author arranged for his publisher to send 200 free copies of the book to the school for any students who wanted to read it on their own. Escambia County School District’s superintendent later admitted that a challenge policy was ignored, but the principal faced no consequences for his actions. Instead Griffith, the teacher, faced misconduct charges that could have resulted in the loss of her job, although she was finally exonerated in August and received a personal apology from the superintendent. (We named both Doctorow and Griffith among our free speech superheroes during Banned Books Week.)

Florida School District Removes Paper Towns From Reading List

Our next case also came out of Florida, namely the Tampa-area Pasco County School District. This time, it was someone in the district’s central office who quietly removed John Green’s Paper Towns from a summer reading list after a parent complained of references to teen sex and masturbation, calling the book “soft porn.” Although the school district has a detailed policy on book challenges, it was not followed in this case and the superintendent later said there was some confusion as to “whether the full review process that is outlined in Board policy should be put into action.”

John Green’s Looking for Alaska Under Attack in Wisconsin

The news was not all bad, however; in Waukesha, Wisconsin, the school district faithfully followed its challenge policy when a parent challenged Looking for Alaska because it contained “page after page” of sexual content. Ultimately a review committee unanimously rejected the challenge, whereupon two more books were also challenged by other parents. The review committee also opted to retain those books, Chinese Handcuffs by Chris Crutcher and The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, with a vote in August.

Alabama Speak Challenge Nipped in the Bud

Another positive outcome came in the small town of Albertville, Alabama, where the high school principal calmly rejected a challenge to Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak by pointing out that it was one of many options on a reading list and students were free to choose a different book.

Pennsylvania School Board Rescinds Ban of The Handmaid’s Tale

When The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood was challenged in Pennsylvania’s Ringgold School District, the school board initially followed a familiar pattern of ignoring its challenge policy and banning the book. When a teacher suggested that the board at least read the book before banning it, one member responded that “I don’t read Penthouse and I won’t read this.” The board later reconsidered its hasty action, however, and voted to reinstate The Handmaid’s Tale as a summer reading book in August.

Cape Henlopen Board Eliminates Entire Reading List in Dispute Over Cameron Post

For sheer disorganization and confusion over summer reading assignments this year, Delaware’s Cape Henlopen School Board took the cake. In response to a parental challenge of emily m. danforth’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post, the board initially removed the book (without following challenge policy) as an option on a summer reading list that included nine other titles. Board members claimed that they found the book inappropriate only because of profanity, not because the teenaged protagonist is a lesbian. But when nationwide free speech and LGBT advocates banded together and pointed out that some of the other books on the list also contain profanity, the board agreed and eliminated the entire list.

This was disappointing to say the least, but CBLDF and other member organizations of the National Coalition Against Censorship took the opportunity to sponsor an essay contest, giving Delaware high school students a chance to tell the Cape Henlopen board members what they should have known about Cameron Post before they banished it from summer reading. This fall, the board revised its policy so that future challenges to summer reading books must be brought during a designated review period between April 15 and May 15.

IRONY ALERT: Would-be Censor Arrested at School Board Meeting, Claims Violation of His First Amendment Rights

In this case, the book in question was not a summer reading assignment but the associated drama spanned the summer months and beyond. Back in May, Gilford, New Hampshire parent William Baer was arrested for disorderly conduct at a school board meeting when he refused to yield the floor after his allotted speaking time, during which he objected to a passage describing a sexual assault in Jodi Picoult’s novel Nineteen Minutes. Baer’s daughter had been assigned to read the book for her Honors English class, but was free to choose an alternate text if she or her parents were uncomfortable with the primary assignment. Upon his arrest Baer, a lawyer with no apparent sense of irony, was quick to claim that his First Amendment rights had been trampled. Just a few weeks ago, all charges against Baer were dropped, with a judge noting that his actions were “impolite but not criminal.”

Persepolis Challenged in Oregon School District
Persepolis Suspended from Curriculum in Another Illinois High School
Pennsylvania School District Cancels Spamalot, Fires Teacher for Protesting
Parents Fight Back as Texas High School Suspends Seven Books
Painted Drum Challenge Denied in Minnesota

Unfortunately, the censors kept things going from summer into the new school semester. As Banned Books Week rolled around in September, some seemed to take annual celebration of the right to read as a personal challenged to try to ban books around the country. In one week, we saw half a dozen new challenges, including new attempts to ban Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis. Fortunately, we had plenty of help in protesting censorship, from our frequent partners with the National Coalition Against Censorship and the other sponsors of Banned Books Week to the parents, teachers, authors, and more who took immediate action to protest a challenge in their communities.

Ohio Superintendent: Controversial Books Aren’t for Summer Reading

In light of all these challenges, one Ohio superintendent’s solution may seem like an easy solution: simply avoid controversial books. But of course different people find different topics objectionable, and as noted above, summer reading books tend to engage with real-life issues that are likely to set off some parent alarms. Rather than limiting students to “safe” books that many teen readers would also label “boring,” school districts are much better off if they simply observe their challenge policy as written, as in Waukesha, or point out that there are other books to choose from, as in Albertville. If more of them do so, perhaps this trend will not continue in 2015.

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