A Curiously Close Call With Censorship

I wrote this and submitted it as a “My View” for the Tallahassee Democrat to coincide with Banned Books Week. It was not accepted by the Democrat, and Banned Books Week ends today so I am out of time to try to convince them otherwise. This piece is the most heart-generated and fussed-over composition I have written in a long time, so I want it to see the light of day. If you see fit to share it, please do. After two previous blog posts and countless other interactions on this topic, this post is my last. That sure doesn’t mean I am not watching, though, to make sure procedures are followed in the future and freedom to read remains exactly that: FREE.

A Curiously Close Call With Censorship

“Never mind.”

There are times when “never mind” is an appropriate response.

For example: change your mind after asking your son to pass the plate so you can take a second helping at dinner?

“Never mind.”

However, when it comes to free access to the written word, “never mind” is the wrong response.

As Banned Books Week 2015 ends, the “never mind” which was issued in response to a few parents’ complaints about The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time at Lincoln High School should not be brushed off.

At the end of the 2014/15 school year, students at Lincoln High School were informed their summer reading assignment was to be The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon.

On August 4, the principal sent an email stating that the assignment was being changed from “required” to “optional.” In that email, he said “I understand that the language used in this summer’s selected novel makes this text inappropriate as an assignment for all students…I am lifting the mandatory requirement for this novel.” The email continued, “ this novel will not be used for instruction during the school year.”

In a subsequent conversation with the principal, he told me that parents of incoming freshmen had expressed concerns about the language used in the book. He ultimately decided that the book “set the wrong tone” for an incoming freshman’s first experience with Lincoln High School.

An email which stated, “this novel will not be used for instruction during the school year” felt like a “never mind.”

Over the weeks between August 4 and now, I have struggled to put my finger on exactly why this situation angered me so much. While trying to figure out my own intense reaction, I visited as many articles and blogs about this situation as I could. Countless times, I have responded to people worldwide: “I am a parent of a child at the school in question. To be clear, the book was not banned. The assignment was made optional.”

I want to believe the public statements of my School Board members that this is not “censorship” or “banning.”

Here’s where I have an issue.

If this “never mind” isn’t censorship, what is it?

It falls somewhere between the American Library Association’s “public attack” and “censorship.” A public attack is “a publicly disseminated statement challenging the value of the material, presented to the media and/or others outside the institutional organization in order to gain public support for further action.” Censorship is “a change in the access status of material, based on the content of the work and made by a governing authority or its representatives. Such changes include exclusion, restriction, removal, or age/grade level changes.”

The ALA does not have a “never mind” category.

As Banned Books Week ends, we owe it to our students to be vigilant year-round, not just one week a year, and to stop ourselves when and if we inch close to censorship.

We need to know when to say, “I mind.”


My Banned Books Week Virtual Readout:

This post was also published on LinkedIn here.

And for the last word, thank you Judy Blume, without whom my childhood would have been much duller.

judy blume

15 thoughts on “A Curiously Close Call With Censorship

  1. Pingback: A "PTBH" at the Epicentre of a Curious Incident - PerspicacityPerspicacity

    • Lesley, it’s definitely a thing. I don’t know how long Banned Books Week has existed, but I participated last year and I know it occurred before that. In this particular case, I know this book was not “banned” but the week is intended to increase awareness of how freedom to read is restricted in big and small ways. In this particular situation, there were several procedural steps that were not taken. I didn’t detail them in the blog because I didn’t want to misstate them, but in general: 1) the school was supposed to provide notice to the parents of students that there was “adult” language in the book and 2) there are specific procedures for how a parent complaint should be filed/responded to. It was not appropriate for one administrator to make a sweeping change to the assignment in the ad-hoc way this decision was handled. // I really love leadership and leadership theory, and it also disturbed me that the teachers did not appear to be supported/backed up (again, I don’t know WHAT the teachers were told but if I had been an English teacher who selected this book as part of a selection committee, I would have been disappointed to have my decision/choice negated in this way). More info on Banned Books Week is available at http://www.bannedbooksweek.org. Thx so much for your comment (and your tweet).

  2. Our rights are gradually being taken away, one “inappropriate,” “politically incorrect” reference at a time. I do not believe your school board when they say this is not banning or censorship. They have taken the parents by the hand and are leading them down the path they want them to go. That–in and of itself–is politically incorrect. They–not us or the book in question–are the ones who are inappropriate. Continue to speak up, Paula! We need voices like yours. Brenda

    • Well, the school board part is somewhat complex. In retrospect, I should have introduced the issue to each one of them via email or phone call or personal meeting. For the members who don’t have children in our district, my three minute speech at their meeting shortly after the announcement of the assignment change was the first detailed exposure they had had to it …… which led to a discussion which really called for more preparation in advance. // I think one thing that became apparent is there is inconsistency in how these types of things are handled. I know anecdotally that some teachers essentially teach what they want to and deal with the fallout IF it happens. I think as a community those of us who feel strongly about this type of thing have our work cut out for us still. Thank you for your support, Brenda, truly ….

    • I agree! Totally amazing. My only consolation is that, teenagers being teenagers, this choice on the administration’s part PROBABLY resulted in more readership of this book as opposed to less! 🙂

  3. Paula — I was one of those parents who also contacted the principal to voice my concern over his email and I did think it was equal to banning when they didn’t allow the students to discuss the work at school. It was a really incredible book and the student in the book who was Autistic was only repeating the words of adults that he heard. It held many life lessons that would have been valuable for our kids to discuss in class.

    It prompted a great conversation between my daughter and me about the fact that being exposed to issues — including curse words — doesn’t mean you agree with them or use them. She assured me she hears worse in the school hallways and understands the difference. I expect my children to be exposed to great literary works at school and regret they took this action. Thanks for posting and caring!

  4. That’s kind of interesting. They don’t have enough guts to outright ban the book, but instead they trash the reputation of the book so that no one will read it with an unbiased view. That’s sort of like seeing a woman in a red dress at a party and speculating to all your friends if she is a hooker or not. Certainly, no one is going to walk up to her and greet her nicely after that. Stuff like that really bugs me. They probably had two parents out of more than 100 make a mild complaint about the book and they decide they have to do the “politically correct” thing and pull the book. People like that just make me tired.

    • The entire situation made me examine my feelings and thoughts about many things. Last year, when I did the Banned Books Readout, I read from Captain Underpants and it just felt silly and whimsical. This year (when I read from Curious Incident) it felt much different. I honestly think the action that was taken is going to result in MORE kids reading the book, and I don’t think teenagers in general are worried about attempts by adults to bias their view. To my knowledge it was approximately 20 parents who called/emailed in opposition to the book (and our student body is roughly 1800). While I believe (and have said repeatedly) that the issue does not lie with the parent who was quoted in the newspaper as complaining about the obscenity and religious skepticism (she requested an alternate assignment, not a ban or reversal of the assignment), I know much of my gut reaction DOES lie with my view of the responsibility of raising intellectually curious children: exposing them to a WIDE array of viewpoints, cultures, and worldviews so that they are better able to relate to and understand people who are different from them. And you don’t do that by saying “don’t read/watch that book/movie because we don’t believe that way.”

  5. It’s quite appalling what made the Banned Books list. Harry Potter, seriously? I think books bring up important conversations kids needs to have. I have not read The Curious Dog but I imagine your average high school kid has heard worse language by now. Kids need to know how to adapt and react positively to situations presented to them at that age. They aren’t preschoolers that we need to shield. Thanks for visiting my 25 Reading Challenges to Unleash Your Inner Bookworm post today.

    • Oh, Tanya, I agree with you wholeheartedly. I am as surprised as anyone that this has become “my” issue, in the sense that I already have plenty of irons in the fire and other worthy causes/issues have crossed my path that deserved my attention and time. It’s just that …….. words/reading/literature is the gateway to being thinkers. I think it’s the idea that reading something that runs counter to your beliefs is going to corrupt or ruin you. Reading that someone is an atheist, for example, does not make a believer stop believing. Rather, it helps them understand the enormity of the types of beliefs in the world around them and hopefully how they can be a civil, contributing part of that world. Oh yeah, I think I’m remember why I feel so strongly LOL.

  6. Pingback: Banned Books Week 2019 - Big Green PenBig Green Pen

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