ALAN v23n1 - The Library Connection- They Just Can't Do This: Parents Respond to Censorship
In the Spring of 1995, the Carroll School Board, representing a suburban school district located north of Dallas/Fort Worth and including the town of Southlake, voted to remove Harry Mazer's The Last Mission from the middle school library. Chris and June Heckman, parents of an eighth grader, first learned of this decision when a friend of theirs, a local librarian, called them. Concerned, the Heckmans thought: "They just can't do this." What separates the Heckmans from many parents is that they spearheaded a group of Southlake residents who took action: they researched the question,called local organizations to help, organized other parents to find out about the issue, and forced the question by running for a school board position.These parents' dedication to preserving First Amendment rights for their children and their community merits recognition. But beyond this incident, this involvement should remind teachers and librarians that they need not stand alone when fighting threats to intellectual freedom. Parents are natural allies in the educational process and should serve as vital, pro-active voices in preserving their children's access to books, ideas, and opinions. The following interview, conducted in July of 1995 with Chris Heckman, shows what a difference one group of committed parents can make.
The Library ConnectionBetty Carter, Editor
Texas Woman's University, Denton, Texas
They Just Can't Do This: Parents Respond to Censorship
BC: Had you heard about banning The Last Mission before the decision was made?
CH: June and I had not heard about it at all. We didn't know about it until one of the librarians who was a friend of ours called my wife the morning after the ban. The petition was brought by what I believe are extreme right-wing religious zealots, who live in this subdivision, a stone's throw away from us.You can see their house from our back yard. And it was backed heartily by the people who live right behind us, which made it all the harder.
BC: Is there a particular church in the community that supported removing the book?
CH: There is a church. It is a new church, a small group. On the other hand,the largest church in town is the White's Chapel Methodist Church. Their pastor was very much in favor of keeping the book on the shelf. He just thought this was totally outrageous. So there was actually a fair amount of support from the traditional religious community who were opposed to the book banning, which I thought was great.
BC: I understood the district had passed a selection policy. Shouldn't that have protected the book?
CH: Yes, but the selection policy had only been in place a year. Actually it was a fine selection policy. Several of the school board members said publicly,and told me personally, that the reason they voted in favor of the banning, was they didn't like this original policy and wanted a new one. They stated they always intended to put the book back on the shelf and hoped the book would pass the new policy. But, according to them, the old policy did not have enough parental involvement. Now the odd thing about this was the policy was only a year old and all the sitting school board members had passed it. But what happened was a group of maybe fifteen or twenty people came to the school board, which is a very small room, and filled the place up.
No one was prepared for this challenge, and there was nobody to oppose it. I think the school board just thought, if this group can get twenty people to come to the meeting, then there will be more individuals out there who would support them. The school board members were afraid about getting re-elected. So they voted four to three to remove the book.
BC: But then the school board decided to reconsider their removal of The Last Mission .
CH: Not immediately. We were told that this issue was coming up again. So we found out when the next school board meeting was. I had never even been to the school board. We've lived in the community two and a half years, and I actually didn't know where the school board was. But we said, "Well, we have got to stop this."
We got a little more information on it, made some calls to the school board president, and discovered that the next meeting was going to be the following week and that we were entitled to speak before the group.
I'm a lawyer, so I went back and did some research to discover whether or not this banning was legal. I discovered it was a fairly close question. If the book had been banned on political or religious grounds, it wouldn't have been a close question. But when it's banned on grounds of obscenity or pornography,especially obscenity, it's tough. With pornography, they can do it, but obscenity is a closer call.
BC: So, after looking into the issue, what did you do next?
CH: I called the ACLU, which I had never done before in my life.
BC: They're good folks.
CH: They're very nice folks. I called the Tarrant County President of the ACLU,and his office said he was gone for a week. So, I said, "Have him call me when he gets back." Two minutes later, he calls me back, which I thought was pretty amazing. And he said, "Yeah, glad you called. That's what we're here for." He said they had been monitoring North Dallas school districts that were banning library books. They also knew about an incident in a neighboring district where a group was protesting a biology textbook.
BC: How did the ACLU help?
CH: The ACLU gave us moral support and some legal and organizational advice.First, June and I and several other Southlake residents spread the word. Then we had a meeting at our house to discuss the situation. We invited the ACLU and our neighbors and friends, and said, "We've got to do something." They agreed,so several people put together a petition and put it in some of the businesses around town. Some people went door-to-door getting signatures. They got several hundred. And then we went to the school board with this petition.
BC: What did you do there?
CH: We all wore green ribbons to identify ourselves. We wanted the school board to realize there were a lot of people out there who were opposed to this sort of thing.
Each person was given a five-minute time limit to speak to the issue. Many of the speeches were really quite moving. There was one woman who was a storyteller, and one fellow who had moved here from Plano [a nearby community]who talked about what had happened there [with numerous intellectual freedom challenges], and why he had left. He stopped talking to the school board and turned to the audience for support, telling them he didn't want to see it happen all over again. He told them that this should be a warning, that it was just the start; censorship was a virus that was spreading. I also gave a short speech on the law of book banning and my views on the literary merit of the book itself.
Probably the most moving speech came from an English teacher. She came from the high school and brought about fifteen students from her class. She stood up and said she'd grown up in the area, gone away to college, and wanted to come back and teach here. She saw this as such a great place, but all of a sudden it was changing. Teaching was just her whole life. It took a lot of guts for her to do what she did. In fact, she was the only employee at the school district who did stand up.
BC: That's interesting.
CH: And it was, although I understand it. I'm fortunate, because I don't make my living in the school district. And people have to worry about making a living. The teachers and librarians were scared to death of what was going on.They talked to me privately, and did help, but could not speak out publicly.However, members of their families did. For instance, my campaign manager [for school board] was the husband of the librarian at the intermediate school. So their family took a stand.
But what bothered me most about the whole thing was there was this attitude[among the censors] that the teachers were the opposition. They were the bad guys. And I didn't understand that at all. To me, you've got very educated people, many of whom have master's degrees, who in the private sector could be making 50, 60, 70 thousand dollars, and they're making 25 grand because they think what they're doing is important.
BC: You're absolutely right.
CH: By and large they are very committed. And it just shocked me that these people had this attitude that they were the bad guys. I still don't understand it. But it was certainly there. Also a lot of the teachers in our school district are parents. They're parents here, they're part of the community. The whole thing just shocked me. But there it is.
BC: Was the issue ever discussed in the middle school where it took place?
CH: My son was in the eighth grade there, and he is a pretty avid reader. He knew about it from what was going on at home, but never from the teachers at the school.
BC: What did the school board do after your group came and talked?
CH: They didn't take any immediate action on The Last Mission , but they did vote to rewrite the selection policy. The board wanted to have a new selection policy with more steps and more appeals. They wanted to avoid this issue ever getting to them again.
BC: Often teachers and librarians think that parents challenge books they come across accidentally, that they see a book a child has checked out and are surprised at the content. But I understand in this case the student was instructed to go to school, find The Last Mission , check it out, and bring it home. Is this true?
CH: I think so, but I'm not absolutely sure. I do know that with the second challenge, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings , a child was told to bring that book home so it could be questioned. The group admitted that. They had alist of books that they intended to bring before the school board, one at a time.
BC: Was the school district caught completely by surprise by this organized challenge?
CH: The superintendent told me he saw this coming. I told him, "Well, you didn't seem all that well prepared for it." He agreed, but added that he knew this group would challenge materials, but didn't know how they would go about it. He thought that instead of targeting a specific book they would go after the whole curriculum.
BC: What prompted you to run for school board?
CH: I found out a particular candidate was running unopposed for re-election.She had voted to ban the book. I thought, "I can't let this happen." So I called around, talked to a few people, tried to get someone to run. No one would. Finally I thought: "All right. I'll run." I was primarily interested in making sure the people in this community knew that there was a real threat from this religious right group.
BC: How did the campaign progress?
CH: Of the five candidates running [one seat was open and was contested by two candidates; the other was contested by Heckman, the incumbent, and later a third candidate], one voted for the banning, one was very much in favor of the banning, and three of us were opposed to it. But at the first speaking engagement, nobody mentioned the banning until I spoke. The thing of it is,they just didn't want to take a stand. It seemed like they were more concerned about getting elected than they were about taking a stand. Frankly, I cared more about taking a stand than I did about getting elected.
It was very interesting, because the first time I spoke, I came out very hard.And the whole theme of my speech was: We've got an excellent school district here. Let's not screw it up. My house, in the last two years, has increased in value by over ten percent and that's because people are moving here. It's a desirable place to live. And it's a desirable place to live because we have a good school district. But if you turn it around, and all of a sudden people are saying, "Whoa, I don't want to move there. That district is run by fanatics,"then the value of your property is going to go down. Never mind what's going to happen to your kids who have to go to school, you're going to lose your teachers. You're not going to be able to hire new teachers. The whole community is based upon the reputation of being one of the best school districts in the metroplex. And this thing could blow the whole deal.
BC: In other words, the candidates would have ignored the whole issue of freedom to read if you hadn't spoken out.
CH: I think they would have liked to ignore it, but the audience probably would not have allowed it. So, we, and it really was a "we," because it was my wife and my campaign manager and many others, really tried to set the agenda for the election. I think the issue would not have had the prominence it did if we hadn't taken a stand.
BC: I see that there are a lot of parents out there who are genuinely concerned about their kids. They think that by taking certain books out of school libraries they can protect them. They don't see a larger issue involved.
CH: Well, there are lots of things I do not want my kids to do. I made the point during the campaign, I don't want my kids reading obscenity anymore than anybody else does. But then, in fact, I don't let my kids read obscenity. But,that's my responsibility as a parent. If parents don't want their child to read a book, all they have to do is tell their child not to read the book. But if you take it off the shelf, then you've given away that choice to everybody else.
At this point in the interview, Chris gave me a photograph. It was taken atone of the polling places, and showed a car with a sign attached to the windshield declaring "Chris Heckman is a dirty book salesmen." [sic]
CH: There were a lot of letters to the editor of the local paper from people who were concerned about their eleven-year-old daughters reading pornography.First of all, The Last Mission is by no means pornographic. There's nose in it at all. All there is, is coarse, perhaps vulgar language that the narrator is shocked to hear. But, that's war.
Also, eleven-year olds aren't usually in the middle school. Generally you've got to be twelve or thirteen to get in the 7th grade, and then 8th grade is thirteen and fourteen. There's a lot of difference between an eleven-year old and a twelve-year old. But does that mean you're going to take the book off the shelf because you might have an eleven-year old come in? No. You -- the parent-- just say, I don't want that to be read.
BC: Were there other unpleasant incidents?
CH: June received three phone calls saying we were immoral, and the opposition kept taking down my signs. But there was one bright spot. One girl, whose father opposed me and favored the book banning, took one of my signs. Her father brought her over to our house to apologize. I told him how much I appreciated that -- the fact that we could disagree but still care about raising good kids.
BC: Did you win the election?
CH: No. I lost the battle, but I won the war. I got what I wanted. The people in Southlake know what can happen. We now have a group of concerned parents who monitor the school board calendar, and if other challenges come up, we'll be there to show our voice.
BC: Do you think this is over?
CH: No. The pro-ban group wanted to donate a bunch of religious books to one of the libraries. The librarian said that would be fine, but those books would have to go through the same selection policy as did other books. The group rejected that, and said they wanted the school to take them as a package, which is unbelievable after all the screaming that they had done about selection of The Last Mission .
A lot of the people who supported the banning are now turning away from the school district because they are now home-schooling their kids or taking them to a Christian church school. Which is fine. I have nothing against private schools. I went to religious [Catholic] private schools my whole life. So, I'm certainly not opposed to them. But you just can't turn a public school into one. That's all.
BC: When did these parents pull their children out of school?
CH: They won't be enrolling in the fall.
BC: And what about The Last Mission? Is it now back in the middle school library?
CH: It will be when school reopens. The board reversed itself in June, after the election. What happened was, Maya Angelou's book [ I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings ] was up for being banned. And this time, because we were no longer strangers to the school board, we knew that it was on the agenda. I was out of town the night of the meeting. But my wife went, and several others including the fellow from the ACLU came and spoke, and the school board voted seven to zero to keep Maya Angelou's book in. Then, in a vote we did not know was going to happen, they voted six to one to reinstate The Last Mission .
BC: Was there a petition to reinstate it?
CH: I think it just came out of the blue. I don't even think it was on the agenda.
BC: What about the experience overall?
CH: It was a very good experience. Our nine-year-old daughter was really caught up in the election, although our son wasn't as excited. We got to know several members of the school board including a couple of them who originally favored the book banning. They're not members of the religious right. I think they were just reacting to what they erroneously perceived as the wishes of a majority of the community.
BC: What kind of advice can you give to others who might want to organize a group opposing censorship?
CH: This country is a democracy, and what matters is numbers. Anyone who wants to become politically active can. If you go to precinct meetings this year, you can probably become a delegate to one of the major political conventions next year. People just aren't getting involved, and that's all it takes. Numbers of people influence policy. The other side knows this and uses this. It's time we did, too.
There are numerous resources to help classroom teachers and school librarians fight threats of censorship. Be informed. Request and read Common Ground , prepared by the NCTE/IRA task force on Intellectual Freedom. 1 Reread the Winter, 1993 The ALAN Review , which is devoted entirely to intellectual freedom issues. Likewise, SIGNAL , the international Reading Association's journal from its special interest group for the adolescent reader, addresses intellectual freedom in its Fall, 1994,issue. 2
Censorship: A Threat to Reading, Learning, Thinking ,edited by John Simmons , and Preserving Intellectual Freedom , edited by Jean E. Brown , offer extensive discussions of censorship, with articles covering various aspects of the problem, individual challenges and complaints,and plans for dealing with censors in the schools.
Craig Virden, vice-president and publisher at Bantam Double day Dell Books for Young Readers, has compiled a "First Amendment First Aid Kit," intended as a quick reference guide for coping with challenges, developing selection policies, and learning what young adult authors have to say about censorship. 3 In an introductory letter to the kit, Virden states: "I think it's important for a publisher to make a stand and offer to support those people so crucial to making sure our books reach kids. We thank you for your efforts and salute you!" May the entire profession echo these thoughts.
1. Individual copies are available free upon request. Write NCTE, 1111W. Kenyon Road, Urbana, Illinois 61801-1096 and enclose a self-addressed,stamped envelope.
2. Individual copies of the Fall, 1994 SIGNAL, can be ordered from Elizabeth Poe, English Department, Radford, Virginia 24142-6935. Please enclose a check for $5.00 made out to SIGNAL.
3. The "First Amendment First Aid Kit" is free for teachers and librarians.Write Bantam Doubleday Dell, School and Library Marketing, 1540 Broadway, New York, New York 10036.