Last October, a parent at Watauga High School in Boone, North Carolina asked the local school board to remove Isabel Allende’s internationally-renowned The House of the Spirits from the curriculum. After making its way through a multi-step county review process, last week the school board voted 3-2 to uphold the teaching of the book.
The fight to keep the book in the curriculum was backed by many supporters – including the author herself. In a letter to the Watauga County Board of Education, Isabel Allende wrote,
Banning books is a common practice in police states, Like Cuba or North Korea…but I did not expect it in our democracy.
PFAW Foundation president Michael Keegan also spoke out against censorship to the school board. In his letter, Keegan wrote:
We trust that as educators you will uphold the right of all students in Watauga County to receive a competitive, rigorous education free from censorship. While individual parents have every right to decline reading material for their own children, they should not be allowed to censor the curricula for all students in the county.
The House of the Spirits is not the first book PFAW Foundation has fought to protect. In addition to speaking out about Allende’s novel, in the past year PFAW Foundation has advocated against censorship attempts aimed at Invisible Man, Neverwhere, and The Bluest Eye.
Anti-LGBT activists in Dallas and Oklahoma City are trying to shut down performances Paul Rudnick’s “The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told,” a play that includes gay characters and takes a humorous look at Bible stories.
America Needs Fatima, a project of the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family, and Property, is organizing a “public Rosary of Reparation against the blasphemous play” in Dallas this weekend.
Join our public Rosary of Reparation against the blasphemous play 'The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told' scheduled to show as “holiday fare” at the Kalita Humphreys Theater in Dallas, TX, on December 8...
…because “The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told” refers to Our Lady as a lesbian!
This is blasphemy.
I ask -- will God bless those who allow His Holy Mother to be dragged into the dirt of lesbian insults? Will He allow the Immaculate Conception to be turned into a homosexual party game?
A group of Oklahoma City pastors are going one step further and asking for a performance of the play in their area to be cancelled. The group, led by Paul Blair and Steve Kern , whose wife State Rep. Sally Kern claimed that homosexuality is “more dangerous” than terrorism, sent a letter [PDF] to state officials demanding that they stop the performance because “it is quite possible that this production meets the definition of obscenity and might be in violation of Federal and State obscenity laws.”
The pastors said that the government should “cease funding the Arts Council” until the play — which is produced by a nonprofit theater company — is pulled. The theater company producing the show says it already lost a $5,000 state arts council grant after Religious Right activists started complaining about the play.
A First Amendment law professor at the University of Oklahoma College of Law told The Oklahoman that he
didn't see enough data in the ministers' letter to conclude that an obscenity prosecution was possible or plausible.”
When the teaching of Isabel Allende’s internationally renowned novel The House of the Spirits was challenged in a North Carolina school district last month, advocates from all corners spoke out in its defense, including PFAW Foundation president Michael Keegan and North Carolina Poet Laureate Joseph Bathanti. Now, Isabel Allende herself has joined the conversation.
Yesterday the School Library Journal reported that Allende has mailed a letter, along with copies of her book, to the Watauga County school board, superintendent, and the principal of Watauga High School.
After acknowledging that being in the position of defending her own book is “unusual and awkward,” Allende points out in her letter that The House of the Spirits is “considered a classic of Latin American literature and it is taught in high schools, colleges, and universities in all Western countries, including the USA for more than two decades.” She expresses concern about the practice of book censorship in general:
Banning of books is a common practice in police states, like Cuba or North Korea, and by religious fundamentalist groups like the Taliban, but I did not expect it in our democracy.
Allende’s letter comes as the book undergoes a multi-step review process in the county. Last month an advisory committee comprised of teachers, students, and parents voted unanimously not to remove the book from the curriculum, but that decision has been appealed.
Last month, PFAW Foundation sent a letter to a school district review committee in Alamogordo, New Mexico urging them to reject attempts to remove Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere from the English curriculum. Yesterday a local television station, KRQE News 13, reported that the book will indeed be put back into the Alamogordo High School curriculum. A district spokesperson told the School Library Journal that in the review process the book was found to be “educationally suitable, balanced, and age-appropriate for high school students.”
The School Library Journal’s Karyn Peterson provides the backstory:
Use of the novel, which had been a part of the AHS English department’s curriculum for nearly 10 years, was suspended from classrooms in early October after a mother complained to the school board about what she characterized as the book’s “sexual innuendos” and “harsh” language—occurring on a single page of the 400-page novel. The district then created a review committee and opened a public comment period...
PFAW Foundation was one of the groups that weighed in, encouraging the review committee to uphold the right of all students to “to receive a competitive, rigorous education free from censorship.”
The full text of our letter is below.
October 25, 2013
Dear Members of the Review Committee,
We urge you to reject attempts to remove Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere from the English curriculum. We understand that the novel was temporarily removed from the curriculum following the complaint of a parent and will be reviewed by this committee.
Neil Gaiman, whose awards include the Newbery Medal for outstanding children’s literature, is an acclaimed author whose work has been taught in the district for many years. We recognize that school leaders often face difficult decisions that require balancing the concerns of parents with the educational development of students. However, according to English teacher Pam Thorp’s recent letter in the Alamogordo News, the child of the parent bringing the complaint was offered alternative reading material. While parents have every right to decline reading material for their own children, they should not be allowed to censor the curricula for all students.
Many works of literature tackle mature or challenging topics. Attempting to shield high school students from challenging works robs them of the opportunity to learn from and engage with literature, and sets a dangerous precedent.
We trust that as educators you will uphold the right of all students in Alamogordo public schools to receive a competitive, rigorous education free from censorship. For over 30 years we have worked with school districts to protect students’ right to learn, and are happy to serve as a resource for you in this and any future challenges to school curricula.
President, People For the American Way Foundation
Last week after hearing about the ban, PFAW Foundation president Michael Keegan sent a letter to Randolph County school board members urging them to reverse their decision. Area media outlets documented the local, national, and even international response.
The board listened to the outcry. The Courier-Tribune reports that yesterday evening, the Randolph County Board of Education voted 6-1 to reinstate the book to school libraries in the county. At the meeting, some board members reflected on their changing perspectives about censorship and constitutional liberties:
Lambeth said since the last meeting he had listened to other viewpoints and still was concerned about the book’s content and protection of students, but realized that the decision was about a child’s First Amendment rights and educational values, not his personal perspective.
Board member Tracy Boyles said he had wondered as he drove home from the last meeting whether he had made the right decision….He also reflected on his son being in the Air Force and ‘in war twice.…He was fighting for these rights. I’m casting a vote to take them away. Is it right of me? No.’
Fighting censorship has long been a priority of People For the American Way Foundation. Freedom of expression – whether in schools, museums, or any public place – is a fundamental right of Americans that PFAW Foundation will continue its work to protect.
People For the American Way Foundation president Michael Keegan sent a letter to members of the Randolph County, North Carolina, Board of Education today urging them to reverse their decision banning Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man from school libraries. Following a complaint from a parent, the board voted 5-2 on Monday to remove all copies of the acclaimed American literary work from school libraries in the county, Asheboro’s Courier-Tribune reported.
The Courier-Tribune is now reporting that the board may indeed reconsider the ban, noting that they plan to hold a special meeting about the book on Wednesday, September 25.
The full text of the letter is below:
Randolph County Board of Education
c/o Dr. Stephen Gainey, Superintendent
McDowell Governmental Center
2222-C S. Fayetteville St
Asheboro, NC 27205
September 20, 2013
Dear Members of Randolph County Board of Education:
On behalf of our 816,840 members and activists, we urge you to reverse your decision to remove all copies of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man from Randolph County school libraries, which was reported by Asheboro’s Courier-Tribune.
Since its 1952 publication, Invisible Man has been targeted multiple times for censorship attempts. To be sure, it is a piece of literature that explores painful themes – one that, as journalist Roger Rosenblatt put it, “captured the grim realities of racial discrimination as no book had.” Yet despite the opinion of one board member that the novel lacks “any literary value,” Invisible Man is among the most acclaimed American novels of the past century. It won the 1953 National Book Award for fiction and was deemed by TIME magazine one of the top 100 English-language novels since 1923.
As an organization that works with elected officials, we recognize that school board members often face difficult decisions that require balancing the concerns of parents with the educational development of students. But denying students access to landmark novels such as Invisible Man because of a parent’s complaint harms students’ ability to learn from and engage with the rich body of literature our country has produced. In addition, multiple committees in your district recommended against its removal.
Our nation’s education system is designed to teach students critical thinking skills – to expose them to new, and sometimes challenging, ideas. This classic literary work must not be banned from schools. We urge you to reconsider this decision, and to make this book available once again to students in your school district.
President, People For the American Way Foundation
Last month, PFAW Foundation reported on a school board in Colorado that was considering removing Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye from its high school curriculum after parents objected to the book’s frank depiction of racism and sexual violence in the Depression-era Midwest.
In a board meeting last week, the school board decided to continue allowing English teachers to teach the book but to require that students submit a parental permission slip before reading it.
Now, the book’s appearance in the Common Core curriculum’s list of possible high school English texts has drawn the wrath of One Million Moms, an arm of the American Family Association, which is issuing an “ultimatum” for the book to be removed from Common Core's materials.
In an interview with the Christian Post this week, One Million Moms director Monica Cole said Morrison’s work is “no different than pornography” and found the need to condemn a pedophile character’s “use of the Lord's name to justify his actions,” claiming that this character is actually "an extremely sneaky way to involve violence in the school system."
"This book is no different than pornography," Monica Cole, director of One Million Moms, an online advocacy arm of the American Family Association, told The Christian Post in a Monday interview. She then linked pornography to human trafficking, rape, sexual violence, and even sexual slavery.
The author reportedly said "she wanted the reader to feel as though they are a 'co-conspirator' with the rapist," so "she took pains to make sure she never portrayed the actions as wrong in order to show how everyone has their own problems." The book narrates cases of pedophilia, rape, and incest which the author described as "friendly," "innocent," and "tender."
Cole said she was "speechless," that this book would be on the recommended reading list, and she set an ultimatum. "The material that is sexually graphic, we don't agree with it and it needs to be pulled from the curriculum immediately," she stated firmly.
Cole also condemned the pedophile's use of the Lord's name to justify his actions – "I work only through the Lord. He sometimes uses me to help people," the character claims. The director of One Million Moms called this "an extremely sneaky way to involve violence in the school system."
The director asked why books like this one, as opposed to the classics, are recommended to children. She mentioned "millions of books to recommend" as opposed to this one.
Cole stressed that neither One Million Moms nor the American Family Association has yet taken a stand against Common Core in general, but when it comes to The Bluest Eye, she proved more definitive. "Nothing good will come of this," she proclaimed.
The Christian Post also asked Family Research Council senior fellow Peter Sprigg about the book. Sprigg agreed that The Bluest Eye should be censored from Common Core’s recommended reading list and fretted about what Common Core means for "community moral standards," but betrayed a slightly more nuanced understanding of the purpose of fiction:
Cases like this, Sprigg explained, inflame the debate over national education standards. While he emphasized that the Family Research Council has not yet taken a stand on the issue, he defended as legitimate the fear that Common Core "will not leave room for community standards to be applied – especially moral community standards."
While Cole argued that Morrison, the book's author, likely used the book to argue for moral relativism, Sprigg gave her the benefit of the doubt. He argued that Morrison might have just wanted the reader to feel empathy for a wrongdoer – not to condone actions like rape and pedophilia.
Morrison’s book has also come under criticism from Glenn Beck’s The Blaze, which warned, “The book — a past selection of Oprah’s Book Club — has graphic sex scenes and descriptions that are likely to make you blush.”
Last week, People For the American Way Foundation joined a campaign to fight book censorship in a Colorado school district. The censorship battle began when a group of parents launched a petition to keep Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye out of the Legacy High School curriculum. Legacy High student Bailey Cross started a counter-petition emphasizing the dangerous precedent that this censorship would set and encouraging the school district to keep the book on the approved reading list.
PFAW Foundation sent a letter to the Adams 12 Five Star School District Board of Education showing support for the student’s campaign and urging the district to reject the attempts at censorship.
The efforts of the Foundation were highlighted by the Denver Post yesterday. Staff writer Yesenia Robles wrote that the parents involved claim the book is “developmentally inappropriate” and should be kept out of the classroom.
People For the American Way Foundation disagrees. Robles reports,
"We do understand this book has themes and content that are really challenging, but that's why it should be taught," foundation spokesman Drew Courtney said. "An important role of classrooms is to help students and young adults deal with that, to have those conversations in an intelligent way in the classrooms. Offering an alternative assignment is appropriate, but banning a prize-winning novel isn't prudence. It's censorship."
See the full Denver Post article here.
“If one book is banned from being taught in a classroom setting, then it opens the door for all books – and ideas – to be banned as well.”
These are the closing words to a petition launched by high school student Bailey Cross in response to an attempt to eliminate Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye from the high school curriculum in her Colorado school district. The school board will have to decide the fate of the book in the district’s classrooms, which a local news source has reported could happen as early as August.
In their petition, the students point out that parents or students who object to the reading assignment are already offered an alternative novel. In addition, teachers are not forced to teach the book. The outright elimination of this important piece of literature from the classroom would set a troubling precedent.
Today People For the American Way Foundation sent a letter on behalf of our 718,000 members to the Adams 12 Five Star School District Board of Education urging them to reject the attempts at censorship. The letter notes,
“Since it was first published in 1970, The Bluest Eye has been the target of censorship attempts because of its frank portrayal of racism and sexual assault. But shielding high school students from these subjects and from Morrison’s discussion of them does nothing to eliminate them from the world. Instead, Morrison’s nuanced discussions of difficult issues serve to help readers understand, discuss, and confront those issues…
“Our nation’s schools are meant to be places that encourage the free exchange of ideas.”
Let’s make sure we keep them that way.
In his Washington Update radio address today, the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins slams the American Library Association for a curriculum that educates students about their library privacy rights. Perkins quotes the concerns of Parents Against Bad Books in Schools, a group that encourages parents to challenge “sensitive, controversial and inappropriate material” in school libraries, including such books as Beloved, One Hundred Years of Solitude, and The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants.
“School libraries,” Perkins says, “are one place where liberalism has a long shelf life”:
In the library, what kids are really checking out is a new ideology. Hello, I'm Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council in Washington, D.C. School libraries are one place where liberalism has a long shelf life. For years, the American Library Association's been funneling inappropriate material to kids. And stopping them just got a whole lot harder. The Left wing's favorite billionaire, George Soros, is giving the ALA a half-million dollars a year to develop a "privacy curriculum" that teaches kids how to "bust through censor walls," "encrypt their communication," and "override filters." Even worse, librarians are told "to inform students that their book circulation data will never be shared with anyone, including their parents." Groups like Parents Against Bad Books in Schools are fighting back, but they need your help. "If enough parents become aware of how many objectionable books there are in [circulation] and work together in constantly challenging them, things can improve considerably," said a spokesman. Otherwise, what libraries will be lending isn't books--but a helping hand to the Left.
For what it’s worth, here are the American Library Association’s guidelines on privacy in school libraries:
Students as Library Users: Students who use school libraries need to learn about the concepts of privacy and confidentiality. They may not know the dangers of sharing personally identifiable information with others. School library media specialists may face the situation of an adult asking for information pertaining to students' library use. These situations must be handled in accordance with all school and library policies. In an ideal situation, that information would not be released. Teachers should not be able to "check" on students to see if they have borrowed assigned readings or used specific resources. School library media specialists are best served when they assist teachers in developing classroom procedures and policies that preserve user privacy and meet educational goals.
CNSNews’ Penny Starr caused an uproar in 2010 when she published a story titled, “Smithsonian Christmas-Season Exhibit Features Ant-Covered Jesus, Naked Brothers Kissing, Genitalia, and Ellen DeGeneres Grabbing Her Breasts.” Starr’s story, a breathless review of a groundbreaking National Portrait Gallery exhibit on the gay and lesbian experience in American art, started a textbook case of the right-wing controversy machine, ultimately resulting in the Smithsonian’s removal of a work from the exhibit.
Apparently encouraged by last Christmas’s triumph, Starr is at it again. Her new target: a National Portrait Gallery exhibit on Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. That the Smithsonian would twice in a row acknowledge the existence of gay people during the winter months is too much for Starr:
For the second year in a row, the federally funded National Portrait Gallery (NPG), a part of the Smithsonian Institution, held an exposition during the Christmas season focused on the homosexual lifestyle.
“Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories,” an exhibition appearing at the NPG from Oct. 14, 2011 through Jan. 22, 2012, focuses on lesbian activist and writer Gertrude Stein.
The exhibit, set up in five rooms at the taxpayer-funded museum, highlights Stein’s lesbian relationship with Alice B. Toklas and Stein’s “second family” of homosexual men, some of whom collaborated with Stein on various projects.
On the wall at the entrance to the exhibit, Stein is described as “one of America’s most famous writers.” It gives brief descriptions of each of the five stories, including “Domestic Stein,” which “looks at the lesbian partnership of Stein and Alice B. Toklas, focusing on their distinctive dress, home décor, hospitality, food and pets.” The “Art of Friendship,” the introduction says, “explores Stein's relationships and collaborations after World War I with the neoromantics, a circle of international artists who were young, male, and gay.”
Last year, when the Smithsonian hosted “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” a groundbreaking exhibit exploring gay and lesbian themes in American art, the Religious Right unified in protest. Inspired by a CNSNews story titled “Smithsonian Christmas-Season Exhibit Features Ant-Covered Jesus, Naked Brothers Kissing, Genitalia, and Ellen DeGeneres Grabbing Her Breasts,” and egged on by the Catholic League’s Bill Donohue, the campaign against the exhibit quickly gained the support of soon-to-be House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor. Within a day they succeeded in pressuring the Smithsonian to remove the most controversial work from the exhibit, David Wojnarowicz’s A Fire in My Belly.
Last week, the exhibit opened at the Brooklyn Museum, famously the site of the Giuliani-fueled controversy over the 1999 “Sensation” show. Within days, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Brooklyn sent a letter to the museum protesting the exhibit, and a small coalition of GOP elected officials followed up with a letter accusing the museum of “Christian-bashing.” New York Post columnist Andrea Peyser also weighed in, calling the Wojnarwicz work “a revolting piece of slime.”
However, the museum hasn’t budged in its support for the show, and the Right’s efforts to censor the work have mostly fizzled. Donohue himself has decided it’s not worth expending too much effort –instead simply issuing a statement reiterating his disgust with the exhibit and accusing Wojnarowicz of bringing about his own death from AIDS.
Left to fill the vacuum so far have been a far-right Catholic group inspired by a Brazilian fascist movement and an artist who was previously known for painting a heroic George W. Bush on horseback holding Osama bin Laden’s severed head.
On Sunday,America Needs Fatima, a campaign of the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family, and Property (TFP), held a protest in front of the museum. TFP is a spin-off of a Brazilian movement that has been called “neo-fascist.” TFP’s foundational text is a treatise by founder Plinio Correa de Oliveira, which argues that the Protestant Reformation, the Enlightenment, the French Revolution and Communism have in their turn undone a natural order that must be restored. While the main American branch of TFP mostly focuses on anti-gay propaganda [pdf], America Needs Fatima is dedicated to organizing “anti-blasphemy” campaigns against targets like The Da Vinci Code, editorial cartoons and Madonna’s planned performance at the 2012 Super Bowl.
The other notable protest against the Brooklyn Museum has been that of Staten Island artist Scott LoBaido, who was thrown out of the museum after showing up with a painting of the museum’s director sitting on a toilet filled with green muck. LoBaido has been protesting art that he sees as blasphemous since at least 1999, when he was arrested for throwing horse manure at the Brooklyn Museum to protest the “Sensation” exhibit. His own work is not always negative, though. Along with his year-long project painting flags on rooftops across America, LoBaido has created fawning, heroic portraits of Ronald Reagan and of George W. Bush brandishing the head of Osama bin Laden.