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Peggy Duffy

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A Troubling Move Toward Censorship by School Board
By Peggy Duffy   

Last edited: Saturday, January 18, 2003
Posted: Saturday, January 18, 2003

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The editor of the Fairfax Extra Edition of The Washington Post generously offered me a Guest Column on March 28, 2002, to write on a subject near and dear to my heart.

Last year, "The Pillars of the Earth," a novel by Ken Follett about building a cathedral in the Middle Ages, was challenged by a Fairfax County parent who requested that the book be removed from all schools countywide and "to restrict libraries from reacquiring it in the future and teachers from using it in any fashion or by suggestion."

A review committee consisting of teachers, librarians, parents and students read the book and found that it provided material not available in other library materials, due in part to its historical accuracy. They voted unanimously (9 to 0) for the book to be retained in all Fairfax County high school libraries.

Both Superintendent Daniel A. Domenech and Maribeth Luftglass, assistant superintendent, concurred with the committee's decision. The parent appealed, and the Fairfax County School Board held a special meeting to consider the challenge.

The crux of this challenge is six pages of excerpted material submitted to demonstrate "the pervasiveness of the pornographic content." Six single-spaced pages translate roughly to 12 pages of text, or about 1 percent of the entire novel.

Pervasive, according to my Webster's, means "diffused throughout every part of." The excerpted passages are such a small part of the whole, they can hardly be said to demonstrate pervasiveness. It makes me wonder if the challenger read the book or merely scrutinized its pages to pick out and retype the objectionable phrases. Personally, I give any student a lot of credit who exhibits the maturity, reading ability, motivation and interest to tackle a 983-page book, which some board members noted has "serious historical, political, and artistic value."

But the majority of the board members made no mention of the book's educational value or its relevance to the ninth grade Program of Studies. Instead, acting out of a self-proclaimed "moral responsibility," they voted 7 to 4 to "restrict access and lending rights of 'The Pillars of the Earth' to students in 10th, 11th, and 12th grades."

The School Board left it up to the individual schools to determine how they would implement this decision. According to Destiny Burns of the Right to Read Coalition, which was formed "in response to recent actions taken by the Fairfax County School Board to remove or limit access to books in the Fairfax County school libraries," the book has been pulled from the library shelves of at least one high school and is kept in a special restricted area behind the checkout counter, denying free access to all students.

The School Board is on dangerous ground here. In Board of Education v.Pico (1982), a group of students and parents challenged the removal of nine books (including "Slaughterhouse Five" and "The Naked Ape") from their school's library shelves as a violation of their First Amendment rights. The Supreme Court ruled in their favor, declaring, "Local school boards may not remove books from school libraries simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books and seek by their removal to 'prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion.' " The court also recognized the special characteristics of the school library and the voluntary use of it by students for "self-education and individual enrichment."

This is not the first book to be challenged, nor will it be the last. Next on the agenda: "Gates of Fire," by Steven Pressfield, another historical novel, scheduled to be discussed and voted on by the School Board on April 22.

These challenges are based solely on selected passages, with disregard to the content and values portrayed in these books as a whole. I’ll grant there are some parents who might find these passages inappropriate for their children, and they have a right to these feelings. Since neither of these books is on required reading lists, students are not being assigned to read them. And even if they were, Fairfax school policies give parents the right to request an alternate book for their child if they object to an assigned one.

The county schools also have policies for reviewing, recommending and adopting instructional and supplemental materials. These two books and others were selected for our school libraries in accordance with these policies. I trust those policies.

Fairfax County Public Schools recognize parents’ rights and responsibilities to decide what their own children read and don’t read. Some parents may not like the description of violence or sexual imagery, or the use of specific language. Whether these are appropriate or inappropriate to convey the historical context and overall theme of a book is subjective, a matter of opinion. But the [Supreme]Court has ruled that a school board may not deny access to the written expression of ideas based on such a subjective response or moral principles. Only parents can do that.

Those parents who believe certain books are inappropriate are free to restrict their own children from reading them. Just don’t restrict mine.

© 2002 Peggy Duffy

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