ACLU Prepares to Defend High School Teacher's Right to Post List of Banned Books

Affiliate: ACLU of Virginia
December 1, 1999 12:00 am

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ACLU of Virginia
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RICHMOND, VA — The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia said that it is prepared to go to court to defend the free speech rights of a local high school teacher who was forced to remove two American Library Association lists of banned books he had posted on his classroom door.

In a letter sent to school officials this morning, the ACLU warned that they will face lawsuit if they do not permit the lists to be posted again or continue to ignore procedures set forth in a policy on handling controversial materials used in the school.

The ACLU said it send the letter after nearly two months of controversy that began when, in response to a parent’s complaint, the principal of Spotswood High School ordering English teacher Jeff Newton to take down the lists of banned books. According to Rockingham County school policy on controversial materials, a teacher has a right to a meeting with the principal and the complaining parent to discuss the matter before a final decision is made.

The teacher also has a right to appeal the principal’s decision to a higher authority. But a letter sent in October to members of the Rockingham County School Board asking them to investigate the removal of the list received no reply.

The list of banned books, which is published by the American Library Association, includes revered and widely read American fiction such as “Huckleberry Finn,” “The Color Purple,” “Of Mice and Men,” and “Death of a Salesman,” in addition to less well-known titles such as “Understanding Sexual Identity: A Book for Gay Teens & Their Friends.” The purpose of the pamphlet, published annually in observation of Banned Books Week, is to educate the public about censorship.

“This is about a teacher’s right to teach and his students’ right to learn,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis. “Because there are important constitutional issues at stake, namely the rights of free expression and due process, we cannot let this go unchallenged.”

A copy of the ACLU letter follows.

December 1, 1999


Mr. C. James Slye
Spotswood High School
368 Blazer Drive
Penn Laird, Virginia 22840

Dr. John H. Kidd
Rockingham County Schools
304 County Office Building
64 South Main Street
Harrisonburg, Virginia 22801

Mr. Danny R. Breeden
Chair, Rockingham County School Board
RR 2, Box 354C
Elkton, Virginia 22827

Dear Mr. Slye, Mr. Breeden, and Dr. Kidd:

I am writing on behalf of Jeff Newton, an English teacher at Spotswood High School. As you know, on September 30, 1999 Mr. Slye directed Mr. Newton to remove the American Library Association’s banned books pamphlets from his classroom door.

The purpose of the banned books pamphlets, published annually in observation of Banned Books Week, is to educate the public regarding censorship and to document attempts to censor books. The pamphlet itself states:

Even as we revel in the increasing quantity and availability of information and reading material, we must maintain vigilance to assure that access to this material is preserved. Threats against the freedom to read still exist and come from all quarters and in a variety of political persuasions. Quite simply, censors are those who try to limit the freedom of others to choose what to read, see, or hear, even when the motivation for the restriction is well-intentioned.

It was this anti-censorship message that the school censored when it required Mr. Newton to remove the pamphlet.

The ACLU of Virginia believes that Mr. Slye’s directive violated his rights under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. The directive was not based on any neutral criteria or policy regarding the posting of educational materials. Rather, it was based solely on the principal’s disagreement with the message (or perceived message) of the pamphlet. This proscription of the expression of a disfavored idea, with no legitimate, neutral rationale, drastically hampers the free exchange of information and is directly contrary to the First Amendment.

The censorship of the banned books pamphlets also breaches the First Amendment rights of the students of Spotswood High School. Students have a right to access to a broad range of ideas. School officials violate this right when they remove materials with the intention of depriving students of access to ideas with which the school disagrees. See Pico v. Board of Education, 457 U.S. 853, 871 (1982).

In addition, by summarily ordering Mr. Newton to remove the banned books pamphlet, the school system failed to follow the procedures set forth in Rockingham County School Board Policy 7.7A-5, Controversial, Sensitive, and Challenged Materials. The policy requires that a meeting be held among the principal, teacher, and complaining parent. If the outcome of the meeting is not satisfactory, subsequent levels of review are prescribed. By ignoring these procedures, the school system has denied the opportunity for a full and open discussion of the value of the educational value of the banned books pamphlets and the reasons for their removal, and denied a voice to numerous concerned parents who have written in support of posting the pamphlet. The school board ignored a request by the ACLU of Virginia to investigate the removal of the pamphlets, reinforcing the cursory manner in which the decision to remove the pamphlet was made.

In light of the serious constitutional issues involved in this case, I request that you take prompt action to rectify the situation. Specifically, I request that you immediately allow Mr. Newton to post the two banned books pamphlets, or, in the alternative, initiate the review procedures set forth in the policy on Controversial, Sensitive, and Challenged Materials. In addition, I ask that you provide a written apology to Mr. Newton for banning the pamphlets without following the required procedures.

In the event that you are unwilling to agree to respect Mr. Newton’s and his students’ constitutional rights, the ACLU of Virginia will not hesitate to take legal action to enforce them.

Please respond by December 15, 1999. I can be reached at the address above or by telephone at (804) 644-8080.


Rebecca K. Glenberg
Legal Director
ACLU of Virginia

cc: John E. Packard
Lowell L. Fulk
Lena R. Osborne
William R. Gamble

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