Not in Our School: Anatomy of a Banned Books Challenge
An Interview with English Teacher Jeffry Newton
by Timothy L. Coggins
Rockingham County English teacher Jeffry Newton has posted the American Library Association's "Read a Banned Book" pamphlet on his classroom door since 1994. In the fall of 1999 a parent walking by Newton's classroom door saw the pamphlet, thumbed through it, had a series of e-mail exchanges about the pamphlet with Newton, and lodged a complaint with school officials. The high school principal ordered Newton to take the pamphlet down, and a challenge to the principal's decision followed.
Mr. Newton has been a teacher for more than fifteen years, teaching in the Rockingham County School System for the past nine years until his resignation this summer. At Spotswood High School in Rockingham County he taught ninth and twelfth grade English and served as the English department chair from 1991 to 1998. In 1994 while serving as the English department chair, Newton began ordering the ALA pamphlet and annually posted a copy of the pamphlet on his door. He also distributed copies to the other ten faculty members in the English department and to students in order to inform them about censorship and the "touchy area between art and government." 1
Newton is an active member of professional organizations, the co-director of the Central Virginia Writing Project at the University of Virginia, a faculty consultant for the College Board Advanced Placement Program, and president of the Secondary Reading Council of the Virginia State Reading Association. He was voted Virginia's Secondary Reading Teacher of the Year in 1997 and is described by students and colleagues as a dedicated and talented teacher who is respected and admired by his students and co-workers. The following interview with Jeffry Newton provides background information about the case and highlights some of the major issues associated with the case. It also reflects some of the issues that Mr. Newton will address during "Not In Our School: Anatomy of a Banned Books Challenge," a program sponsored by the Virginia Library Association's Intellectual Freedom Committee at the VLA Annual Conference. The program is scheduled for Friday, October 20, 2000, 1:15 P.M. - 2:00 P.M.
VL Jeff, thank you for sharing your views about the Rockingham County situation with Virginia Libraries readers. Tell us about your use of the banned books pamphlet, how the complaint was registered, and the reactions of your principal and superintendent.
JN As long as I have taught at Spotswood High School, I have posted various materials on the outside of my classroom door. The items included cartoons, brochures, articles, and other items that I thought would be of interest and value to high school students. For example, last fall I posted articles about Virginia's Standards of Learning, the role of education issues in the November elections, the theory of evolution, the controversy about an exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum, and the controversy over the "Harry Potter" books. My intentions were to educate, inform, entertain, and provide "food for thought" for my students as well as other students passing by my door.
For five years I ordered reprints of the banned books pamphlet. As your readers probably know the pamphlet briefly describes the problem of censorship in public schools, lists books challenged or banned during the past year, provides the author and title of each book and the place where the book was challenged or banned, and then gives a brief description of the reasons for the challenge or prohibition. I used the pamphlet for its expressed purpose: to promote awareness about censorship. In September 1999 I received an e-mail from a parent asking me to explain why I posted the pamphlet on my door. I drafted my response to the parent, showed the draft to my principal, C. James Slye, who agreed that it was an appropriate response, and then sent the message to the parent. She responded the next day and asked if I would send her the latest list of banned books. I told her that the new list was not out yet, but I would send her a copy when I received it. Her response to my message was this: "Thank you so much! Just curious ... why would you want a child to read a book that contains objectionable material?"
VL I assume that you began to realize that this was more than just a curious parent and that you should talk with the principal at this point?
JN Things escalated pretty quickly. The parent contacted the school board chair and complained about the pamphlet. The chair came to the school after school hours and had a school employee make a copy of the banned books pamphlet hanging on my door. The school board chair then contacted the Rockingham County School System Superintendent, John Kidd, who contacted Principal Slye. I received a note in my school mailbox, asking me to see Mr. Slye about the "banned books opportunity." After I received Mr. Slye's note, I send another e-mail to the parent to clarify my position regarding the banned books pamphlet. Essentially, I stated the policy of the Rockingham County public schools: "No child shall be forced to read a book she finds objectionable." I also explained that those parents who do find the books on the list objectionable should rest assured that their children will never be required to read them by our school system.
VL Then the new pamphlet arrived, and you posted it?
JN Yes, that's right. Around September 22, 1999, I received the 1998-99 banned books pamphlet and posted one on my classroom door. I met briefly that same day with Mr. Slye. He indicated to me that one of the titles on the 1998-99 list, The Joy of Gay Sex, was unacceptable, but he did not tell me what to do. A week later he called me into his office, indicated that he had been "hammered" about the pamphlet, and directed me to remove the pamphlet from my door. He gave me two days to decide what to do. That night I sent an e-mail to Mr. Slye and asked him to put into writing what I must do and the consequences for not doing it.
The next day, Mr. Slye hand-delivered to me a letter which stated, among other things, the following: "The reason I feel so strongly about this is because of several titles included in the pamphlet such as: Understanding Sexual Identity: A Book for Gay Teens and Their Friends, Women on Top: How Real Life Has Changed Women's Fantasies, and The Joy of Gay Sex." The letter concluded: "As a result of our conference, I direct you to remove the Banned Books pamphlets, which includes the new one for 1998-99. They are not to be posted again... . This directive is to be followed immediately upon receipt or I will have no alternative but to report you to the Superintendent for failure to follow a directive from the principal." I read that message to mean that my employment would be terminated if I did not remove the banned books pamphlet from my classroom door, so I complied with his directive.
VL Did the principal give you any indication about why he wanted the pamphlet removed? Also, don't school systems have policies and procedures about how to deal with this type of complaint?
VL During the five years that you posted the banned books pamphlet, do you know of any instances when the pamphlet caused any disruption to the operation of the school or the educational process?
JN No, to the best of my knowledge, the banned books pamphlets never caused any students to procure or read a book against the wishes of his or her parents. As far as I know, no parent ever complained about the pamphlet until the e-mail message that I received. During my September 29 meeting with the principal, Mr. Slye asked me if I would purchase books on the list or help students acquire them. I honestly replied, "Yes, depending on the book." My answer reflected the fact that I and other English teachers at Spotswood High School routinely acquired a wide variety of books and made them available in our classrooms for students to read. Also, I never kept in my classroom any books that I believed were inappropriate for teenagers, and I never assisted any student in acquiring such a book. That's why I told Mr. Slye that my willingness to purchase depended on the book. In addition to the three objectionable titles on the 1998-99 list, you have to remember some of the other titles that regularly show up on the list such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Of Mice and Men, Death of a Salesman, Anne Frank: the Diary of a Young Girl, and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
VL At what point did you decide to begin litigation? Also, who were the other plaintiffs in the lawsuit?
JN I was joined in the lawsuit by the American Library Association, the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, the Association of American Publishers, Inc., the American Society of Journalists and Authors, and the National Association of College Stores. Also, four students joined the suit.
We felt that our request that the procedures be followed was not being honored. The ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union] sent a letter to the Rockingham County School Board, asking for an investigation of the removal of the pamphlet, but no response to the letter was ever sent. A group of twelve professors from James Madison University [JMU] drafted a petition in support of the posting of the banned books pamphlet. The petition was read aloud at the October 14 school board meeting, and the professor who read the pamphlet asked that the issue be placed on the agenda for the board's November meeting. Her request was denied. Some JMU professors attended the November meeting, but they were denied the opportunity to comment or ask questions regarding the removal of the banned books pamphlet. In late November the ACLU, acting on my behalf, sent a letter to the defendants (the principal, superintendent, and school board), stating that the directive to me to remove the banned books pamphlet violated my rights and the rights of the Spotswood High School students under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The letter asked that I be permitted to post the banned books pamphlet, or alternatively, that the defendants follow the procedures set forth in the "Controversial, Sensitive, and Challenged Materials" policy. The ACLU letter asked that the defendants respond by December 15, 1999. On December 16, in response to a request from the defendant's attorney, the ACLU of Virginia sent a letter stating the facts and legal basis for the case. The letter asked that the principals of all Rockingham County schools be directed to preserve the state of all classroom doors as they were on September 30. It also reiterated my desire to avoid litigation by following the procedures and requested a written explanation for why this had not been done. No response was received to this letter either.
VL What was the legal basis for the case?
JN We asserted that the defendants' action in requiring me to remove the banned books pamphlet from my classroom door violated my and the associations' freedom of speech under the First Amendment as applied to the states by the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. We also asserted that the removal violated the student plaintiffs' right to receive information and ideas under the First Amendment. Our claims were also based on a violation of my and the associations' freedom of speech pursuant to Article I, section 12 of the Virginia Constitution.
VL What was the response of the defendants?
JN The attorneys for the school board argued that the principal acted within his authority to force the removal. They further asserted that I was free to use the pamphlet as a classroom teaching resource, but posting it gave the appearance that the school endorsed the titles. They continued to assert that I had no grounds to sue.
VL In April 2000 you requested a preliminary injunction directing the principal to permit you to return the pamphlet to your classroom door while the suit was being litigated. You continued to assert that the principal's order to remove the pamphlet violated your constitutional right to free expression. Yet, the judge refused to issue an order for a preliminary injunction. When the judge denied your request, did you perceive that denial as an indication of the future success of the original lawsuit?
JN Yes, we did. U.S. District Judge James H. Michael, Jr. denied my request to post the pamphlet on my classroom door. It was very disappointing to me, to the students in the lawsuit, and to my attorneys. The judge wrote in his opinion that the removal presented no irreparable harm to me or the students since the pamphlet could still be used by me and other teachers as an instructional resource. He also said that, as the facts stood then, it was unlikely that I would succeed on the merits of the claims that the ACLU had argued on my behalf.
VL What's happened since then?
JN You've probably read that I declined a contract to continue teaching at Spotswood High School next year and have elected to leave the school system. My resignation was effective June 8, the last day of the school year for teachers. My attorneys saw little new evidence to present and, while they were willing to go to trial on September 25, 2000, they thought our chances of success were poor. I was exhausted, dispirited, disillusioned, and unwilling to continue teaching at Spotswood merely to preserve the viability of a lawsuit with little chance of success. I was ready to move on. With my resignation and with the graduation of the student plaintiffs, both sides agreed that "this action be dismissed with prejudice, with each party to bear in this proceeding, as among them, its or their own costs, expenses, and attorney fees" (from Stipulation and Final Order of Dismissal, filed 6/29/00 in U.S. District Court, Harrisonburg, Virginia). I'm sad about leaving my students, but excited about new challenges. I'll be working as a staff development consultant, co-directing the Central Virginia Writing Project, and entering the doctoral program at UVA. I'll be teaching and learning.
VL What advice do you have for librarians, teachers, and others who are concerned about censorship, banning materials from schools and libraries, attempts to restrict access to the Internet, and related issues?
JN I'll talk more about this at the Virginia Library Association Annual Conference program in October 2000. Generally, I believe that we all must be alert to attempts to restrict access to materials and ready to uphold certain principles. I firmly believe that a wide range of information should be available for everyone, especially students. Students and their parents must make the choices of what is and is not appropriate for the students to read and view, but their decisions should not impact others. Everyone deserves the same rights, and we should never remove a title from a library based on the complaint of one individual without making certain that we follow established procedures and without considering how that removal might impact others. We need to remember what the U.S. Supreme Court discussed in the Pico case: schools and libraries are a great marketplace of ideas. The observance of the First Amendment is a vital element of teaching students about living in a democratic society. Here's what Pico said about the roles of schools: "That they are educating the young for citizenship is reason for scrupulous protection of Constitutional freedoms of the individual, if we are not to strangle the free mind at its source and teach youth to discount important principles of our government as mere platitudes." 2
VL Jeff, thank you very much. We look forward to hearing from you in October at the VLA Annual Conference.