CBLDF & Kids’ Right to Read Project Fight for Beartown in NC

Beartown CoverThis week CBLDF, as a co-sponsor of Kids’ Right to Read Project, along with National Coalition Against Censorship and other groups dedicated to protecting the First Amendment rights of readers, wrote a letter imploring North Carolina Rockingham School District to remove its district-wide ban on Beartown.

Last month, CBLDF reported on the community outrage that led to acclaimed Swedish author, Fredrik Backman’s Beartown, being pulled from a 10th grade English class for being “vulgar” and “just unnecessary.” The story was picked up by one local news station, that demanded the administration explain how and when curriculum choices like Beartown are decided. The board voted to pull the book from the curriculum, blaming the teacher not following the proper procedures in place for reviewing potential reading material.

It also seems that the teacher’s error in not following the guidelines for adding texts created a situation where the school board opted to neglect protocol in handling the book challenge. According to NCAC’s Blogging Censorship, “District policy states that objections to curricular materials must be evaluated by an advisory committee before being removed. Such a committee was wholly absent from the school board proceedings leading to Beartown‘s ban. ” The full school policy #3210 can be read online.

In the official letter from the Kids Right to Read Project, it is stated,

The First Amendment imposes a constitutional obligation on school officials to resist pressure to promote a particular religious belief or suppress controversial or unpopular ideas. Nor may they restrict access to books based on their own preferences or a parent’s subjective view of what is “appropriate” in literature. ‘Island Trees School District v. Pico, 457 US 853’ (1982). Rather, school officials should make educational decisions to advance strictly secular pedagogical objectives. 1
1 (See also, ‘Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, 484 U.S. 260, 261’ (1988) restricting administrators’ editorial discretion to actions that are ‘reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns’ and ‘West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624, 642′(1943) (‘If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion.’)

In a recent article for CBLDF looking at the Hazelwood and Pico decisions for a different book ban, CBLDF Legal Editorial Contributor, Brian D. Saucier wrote,

“Both ‘Pico’ and ‘Hazelwood’ emphasize that removal of materials must be based upon legitimate pedagogical concerns, although how that standard is met is left rather ambiguous, especially in ‘Hazelwood.’ However, as in ‘Pico,’ the fact that Lee County abandoned the process it developed for this very situation raises the specter of a ‘pall of orthodoxy.’ The School Board’s adherence to its own established policy allowing teachers and administrators to review the material and present written findings…could help ensure that legitimate pedagogical concerns are the basis of any decision regarding the materials, rather than a pretext to disguise an unconstitutional attack on ideas.”

So once again, it is the inability to follow the guidelines set out for challenges to books that causes the greatest misfortune to education and the First Amendment rights of the students affected. Had they convened a committee, as per their own policies, and reviewed the pedagogical assessment of the novel, even if the result was the same, there could be no claims of censorship. Instead, they allowed a teacher’s error to blind them to their duties and removed a book without consulting a panel of qualified experts who are there to ensure teaching comes before pageantry.

Read the full text of the KRRP letter below:

Kids Right to Read “Beartown” by Patricia Mastricolo on Scribd

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