I’m glad my children don’t attend the Alamogordo Public School District in New Mexico, where school officials have temporarily withdrawn Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere from the 10th grade curriculum and, according to some reports, from its library shelves. They are considering whether to impose a permanent ban on the book, which they’ve used in the curriculum since 2004. Apparently, to at least the parent who complained about it, 15 and 16-year-olds are too young to read a fictional sex scene and see the F-word fully spelled out on paper — never mind the fact that one-third of 16-year-olds are sexually active already, regardless of whether they’ve read Neverwhere.
Last month, I wrote in a previous post, Please Stop Parenting My Children:
[There is] a certain attitude that is unfortunately common: What’s best for my family is what’s best for all families.
It’s partly because of this attitude — more pernicious examples of it — that we have so many challenged or banned books to celebrate this week (for those who don’t know, it’s Banned Books Week from September 22nd through September 28th). …
For people with the audacity to challenge a book [often to “protect” children from what some consider offensive material, including profanity, sexual themes, or certain political or religious views], it isn’t enough to tell their own children to refrain from checking out that book. They feel a need to make sure that my children can’t check out that book, too. They attempt to impose their views on me, my children, and everyone else without delineating why the book presents a clear harm to anyone.
The parent who complained to the Alamogordo Public School District about Gaiman’s novel is the type of person I was talking about in that post. It seems that she decided that the novel wasn’t appropriate for her child and so then it must not be appropriate for anyone’s child. Did she seek an exemption from the required reading for her child before she decided to restrict everyone’s access to the book? Did she consider expanding her view of what is “age appropriate” in light of the fact that the district has required 10th graders to read that book for nearly a decade? It sounds like she’s the outlier.
Superintendent George Straface has said to the Alamogordo Daily News that “The F-word is used [in Neverwhere]… There is a description of a sexual encounter that is pretty descriptive, and it’s between a married man and a single woman. Although kids can probably see that on TV anytime they want, we are a public school using taxpayer dollars.”
Yes, Superintendent Straface represents a public school using taxpayer dollars, which means he must be careful about trampling on students’ First Amendment rights. To me, the ban from the school curriculum is different from the removal from the library shelves. A curriculum forces students to read certain material, whether they or their parents want such exposure, while the library merely provides students with access to materials they could choose to borrow. Thus, it makes sense that there would be wider latitude given to districts to remove books from school curricula than to remove books from library shelves.
The United States Supreme Court has generally seen the issue the same way. First Amendment law is notoriously vague and internally inconsistent, but we can draw a few principles from it. In Board of Education v. Pico, 457 U.S. 853 (1982), a plurality of the Justices held that a school board could not remove books from a library for the purpose of denying students access to unpopular ideas — but those same Justices noted the board “might well defend their claim of absolute discretion in matters of curriculum by reliance upon their duty to inculcate community values.” (Emphasis in original.) Six years later, in Hazelwood Sch. Dist. v. Kuhlmeier, 484 U.S. 260 (1988), the Supreme Court affirmed the power of schools to determine the content of their own speech, and held that a public high school was permitted to delete two stories from the school newspaper (one about teenage pregnancy, another about divorce) because the paper “bear[s] the imprimatur of the school” and the school’s actions were “reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns.”
The “reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns” test from Hazelwood has generally been the rule since then when it comes to decisions about a school’s curriculum. As the Sixth Circuit described last year in Ward v. Polite, 667 F. 3d 727 (6th Cir. 2012), “The neutral enforcement of a legitimate school curriculum generally will satisfy [the Hazelwood test].” Some courts still recognize the strength of the Pico opinion, while others don’t. See, e.g., Griswold v. Driscoll, 616 F. 3d 53 (1st Cir. 2010)(holding the situation presented was more like Hazelwood than Pico, but noting that decisions by a school board to remove a book from a library would still be subject to Pico); But see ACLU, Inc. v. Miami-Dade County Sch. Bd., 557 F.3d 1177, 1200 (11th Cir. 2009) (Pico “establishes no standard.”). For an excellent discussion of the competing lines of court cases on student free speech, start reading the Ward opinion at Section II(A).
While school districts have broad latitude over curricula and some latitude (though probably not quite as much) over book removals from school libraries, it’s a shame when they appease the most sensitive members of the community to the detriment of everyone else. Considering that, as the superintendent admits, 15 and 16-year-olds watch TV with more “risqué” themes than the content of Gaiman’s novel, and that, as I mentioned earlier, a large percentage of 16-year-olds are already sexually active, it’s hard to believe that an award-winning author’s book with a sex scene and a smattering of F-words is inappropriate for students of that age.
UPDATE (10/19/13)– Salon has posted the passage that is the basis for the suspension at the Alamogordo School District (it’s pretty tame for 15 and 16-year-olds, quite frankly).
UPDATE (11/14/13)–See Neil Gaiman’s “Neverwhere” is Restored to New Mexico High School, Christian Science Monitor.