A Year's Worth of Challenges to Intellectual Freedom - National Council of Teachers of English
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A Year’s Worth of Challenges to Intellectual Freedom

milliesummer2014twitterThis post was written by Millie Davis, Director, NCTE Intellectual Freedom Center

During the past year, from January 2016 to January 2017, NCTE continued its advocacy for the student’s right to read, write, and learn. We worked on 40 different challenges to trade and text books, classroom and bookstore displays, publishers, and instructional materials. For each, NCTE’s The Students’ Right to Read has anchored our responses, with position statements on Red-Flagging, Academic Freedom, and Guidelines for Selection of Materials in English Language Arts Programs buttressing those responses.

At times we have worked alone but more often we’ve partnered with the National Coalition Against Censorship and the 6-8 other free-speech organizations that join us on letters to school boards and superintendents, sometimes to a college president or a legislator, and even once to a governor. And, in the case of Virginia’s “Beloved” Bill, which we’ve been fighting since 2013, we have also worked closely with the Virginia affiliate (VATE), Virginia’s Social Studies and Science Teachers, and the Virginia ACLU.

In addition, NCAC and NCTE have collaborated on two big projects: 1) a survey of a very large sample of NCTE members and friends about instructional materials, how they select them, and what they choose not to select; and 2) a survey of often-challenged young adult authors about comments they have received in support of their books from their readers. Learn about these in articles about our initial findings: “Comparing Librarians’ and Teachers’ Self-Censoring Patterns” and “Kids Explain How Banned and Challenged Books Helped Them and Even Saved Their Lives,” respectively.

By far, the challenge that has demanded the most time has been the “Beloved” bill in Virginia. This bill/regulation arose in 2013 when a parent, dissatisfied with her district’s ruling to keep Beloved in the 12th Grade AP class, petitioned the state school board. She claimed the book upset her son, and that therefore, any text featuring “sexually explicit content” should be labeled as such on the syllabi of courses that are sent home to parents at the beginning of the year. In 2014, NCTE wrote a letter opposing the regulation as red-flagging and posted it on the state school board’s online public forum.

belovedAn election happened, a new school board was appointed, and the issue lay dormant for two years. Then last spring HB516, a bill about parental notification of “sexually explicit content” and required alternative “nonexplict” assignments, flew through the Virginia House and Senate. NCTE and the Virginia affiliate conducted a letter-writing campaign to the Govenor asking him to veto the bill, which fortunately, he did. But this fall the bill was resurrected in the form of amendments first to the state’s accreditation standards and then to state school board regulations, with NCTE and VATE and members of both writing letters to the state school board opposing the amendments. The Virginia Board of Education agreed with our stance and rejected the amendments this January. NCTE members Leila Christenbury, Chuck Miller, and Sarah Crain gave brilliant and poignant testimony to the board. But at the same time the state school board rejected the amendments, a new bill, HB2191, was being introduced into the Virginia House, which it passed. And it has passed out of the Senate, 21-18. The Governor has already said he’ll veto the bill, and our next advocacy push will be to make sure there are not enough votes in the Virginia legislature to override his veto.

mpaaratingscaleThis long story of a long-running challenge represents a difference in understanding between some parents/community members and educators about how we best teach critical literacy, about the instructional materials we use. Many parents and community members think ratings, like the MPAA ratings, which by the Motion Picture Association’s own admission are not at all ratings of educational value, are what should be used when texts are selected. These same individuals think that an event that happens on page 32 of a text should define that text and nix the whole text from the curriculum. These same individuals have their own ideas about what education, literacy, and reading should mean to their students and they believe that their own ideas should apply to everyone else’s students. This, of course, is illegal—parents/guardians can decide for their own children but not for everyone else’s. And, last, most of these individuals underestimate their students’ ability to handle and learn from complex literature. This is an issue that will continue to arise in the future.

Another issue that has drawn challenges over this past year is what I would describe as abook-cover-huck-finn “sensitivity issue”—when a challenger finds a text to be insensitive to beliefs, race, culture, or sensibilities. This issue has resulted both in challenges against texts like Huck Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird recently in Virginia and in publishers’ deciding to pull books they’d already published or planned to publish or not promote them, books such as A Birthday Cake for George Washingon, We Was Fierce, Bad Little Children’s Books (adult series) and a proposed book by Milo Yiannopoulos. It’s likely that sensitivity, the student’s right to read, and free speech will continue to be at loggerheads in the future.


The third issue which has been prevalent this year involves free speech and trigger warnings on college campuses. Much of this has played out in angry battles between students and faculty, in debates about whether students have free press rights or not, in the cancelling of controversial campus speakers, and in the establishment of safe spaces/rooms on campus, speech codes, and statements from the colleges about how they will promote free speech. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is the free speech organization that spends all of its time on free speech issues on campus, as does Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure of the AAUP.

Add these three prevalent issues to ongoing challenges against sexual, racial, profane, or controversial content in literature and on campus, and we are likely to see more battles about what students read and learn in school, pre-K-16+, going forward.