Last week, a public school district in Mississippi pulled Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird from its 8th grade curriculum.
To Kill a Mockingbird, which addresses racial inequality in Alabama before the Civil Rights Movement, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961. Nevertheless, in 2017, the Biloxi School District found its content inappropriate for its 8th grade students. The Sun Herald, based in South Mississippi, said it “received a email from a concerned reader who said the [school district’s] decision was made ‘mid-lesson plan, the students will not be allowed to finish the reading of ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ …. due to the use of the ‘N’ word.'”
Does that mean students started reading it for class and then were told to stop (possibly in violation of the district’s policy)? How strange. This can’t be the first time the school district has learned that the novel contains the N-word. By my count, via the Kindle search function, the term appears in the novel 47 times, and Atticus Finch discourages his daughter from using it. He doesn’t call it racist, as we would today. Instead, when Scout asks him if he “defends [n-words],” he replies: “Of course I do. Don’t say [n-word], Scout. That’s common,” which is about as good as we can expect from a realistic portrayal of a man in Atticus’s position in that place and time.
The school district’s sudden decision is certainly perplexing, but is it also illegal as a violation of their students’ constitutional right to receive information?
Without more facts, I can’t say for sure, but I doubt it (despite the suspicious timing and explanation for the removal).
Generally speaking, courts in the United States tend to defer to the decisions school districts make concerning the curriculum. As I wrote in a previous post, On Parenting Other People’s Children (& Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere):
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.”
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.” See Ward v. Polite, 667 F. 3d 727 (6th Cir. 2012) (“The neutral enforcement of a legitimate school curriculum generally will satisfy [the Hazelwood test].”).
So, school districts have broad latitude over the lessons they teach our children, and Biloxi has made a decision that To Kill a Mockingbird will not be a school-sponsored vehicle for inculcating those lessons. The book remains in the school library for students to read on their own.
Based on the negative reaction the school district’s decision has received, it seems that many people believe that To Kill a Mockingbird should be required reading. There was a time I thought so too, but why did I feel that way? I read it for school, and loved it, but my husband, who grew up in a town next to Biloxi, can’t remember if he read it. It’s a good book, but it can’t be the only book capable of teaching us about compassion and racial justice.
Rather than insist that school districts keep the same reading list for decades, I encourage them to branch out and find new books that will resonate with their students (as I mentioned last week in my Annie Spence-like letter to the book).
On that note, I’ll ask a question I’ve asked on this blog before: What books should students read *instead* of To Kill a Mockingbird? I’m particularly interested in novels that are something To Kill a Mockingbird is not: a book by a person of color about a person of color.
So far, I haven’t seen any reference to what book Biloxi’s 8th grade students are reading instead of Harper Lee’s classic novel. I wonder if it’s an adequate replacement.