Reject This Amendment / National Coalition Against Censorship
This letter is sent on behalf of the Kids' Right to Read Project of the National Coalition Against Censorship, with additional support from the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, the Association of American Publishers, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund
January 15, 2013
Dear Board Members,
We strongly urge the Board of Education to reject the proposed amendment to the Regulations Establishing Standards for Accrediting Public Schools in Virginia (8VAC 20-131 et seq.) to require parental notification of “any sensitive or sexually explicit materials that may be included in the course, the textbook, or any supplemental instructional materials.” We believe that such a proposal would increase the number of challenges to educationally valuable material, undermine the quality of public education in Virginia, and implicitly encourage schools to avoid material that might elicit objections regardless of its educational merit.
Instructional materials are selected for a number of reasons, including but not limited to their suitability to a given course of study, their literary or educational merit, and their ability to connect instruction to human experience in a broader sense. Singling out books with certain types of content necessarily gives a biased perspective, casting a negative light on listed books regardless of their literary worth, and stoking alarm over their content. Including this amendment inescapably privileges the concerns of would-be censors over the professional judgment of educators who review the books and teachers and librarians who select them. Emphasizing the “mature” content in particular books, or creating a list of previously banned or challenged books, will likely encourage additional challenges and stimulate continuing controversy.
Logistically speaking, including such an amendment would be impossible to implement and enforce, as the terms “sensitive” and “sexually explicit” are vague and overbroad. What one individual feels is “sensitive material” may not be “sensitive” to others. It only takes one person to file a challenge and launch a battle that can last for months and disrupt an entire school system.
Finally, the proposal invites confusion about the constitutional obligations of public school officials, who are prohibited from discriminating against “the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.” Texas v. Johnson, 491 U.S. 397, 414 (1989); see also Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District No. 26 v. Pico, 457 U.S. 853, 872 (1982) (“local school boards may not remove books from school library shelves simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books….”) If the proposed regulation encourages local school officials to remove material to satisfy those who object on the basis of content or viewpoint, it could inadvertently expose school districts to liability for violating the First Amendment. See Monteiro v. Tempe Union High School District, 158 F. 3d 1022 (9th Cir. 1998).
This amendment and the attitude behind it, distract from a full, quality education for students in the state of Virginia. Schools would do better to foster trust between parents and your educators and emphasize that all parties are doing their best to promote high quality education. Focusing on the educational criteria for curricular selections would provide a meaningful, sound and defensible way to evaluate books and serve the educational needs of all students.