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Right to Read, a Grassroots Effort

Many booksWhen it comes to defending intellectual freedom there are two ways to look at the matter. 1. React when intellectual freedom is challenged. 2. Work to proactively prevent those challenges from occurring in the first place. This research policy brief argues strongly for the proactive approach.  The following story illustrates the importance of having a preventative policy in place to avoid reacting to book challenges.

In the fall of 2001, a freshman at Westfield High School in Fairfax County, Virginia, tried to check out the book, Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett, but was told that the book was restricted to 10th-12th graders. A group named PABBIS had successfully prevented freshmen from accessing the book. They were determined to prevent access to other books, including Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield. Neither book had been assigned to students, nor were they required reading.

Upon discovering PABBIS’s actions not only in their high school, but in other schools in Fairfax County, a group of PTA parents formed the Right to Read Coalition. I was one of those parents. Our argument was that parents were the ultimate arbiters of what their child read and no other parent had the right to determine which book their child could or could not read.

Our philosophy was very much in line with NCTE’s Principles for Intellectual Freedom in Education which states:

“All students have the right to materials and educational experiences that promote open inquiry, critical thinking, diversity in thought and expression, and respect for others. Denial or restriction of this right is an infringement of intellectual freedom. Toward this end, NCTE encourages school communities to generate, implement, and follow policies and procedures for defending intellectual freedom at the classroom, institution, and system/campus levels to limit and/or address attacks on free expression.”

Our group quickly organized and employed many of the same advocacy tactics used for any other policy-related initiatives.

  1. We did our research. We learned where the opposition was coming from: We divided up the list of books that PABBIS intended to challenge in order to read each and every one. We wanted to make sure we understood PABBIS’s concerns and objections. We also wanted to make sure we could speak with authority on the content of each book. We found that their objections fell very much in line with the examples of censorship presented in NCTE’s The Students’ Right to Read Guideline. We worked to help others deepen their understanding of the problem: In speeches before the school board we differentiated between assigned texts and student choice and the critical role educators play in selecting instructional materials.
  2. We took action. We began to write letters in the local newspapers to educate our community about PABBIS’s intentions and our reason for fighting back. We held meetings to strategize and coordinate. We testified at School Board hearings. Our participation in the political process led to the defeat of a candidate who believed in banning books and the election of the one who believed in the right to read.
  3. We focused on a sustainable solution. Our advocacy led to Fairfax County Public Schools creating a policy for reviewing challenged books. You can find an example of such a policy in The Students’ Right to Read. Ours added that only parents of students within the schools could challenge books, not members of outside organizations. Volunteer panels were created with staff, parents and members of the community to read the books that were challenged and to submit recommendations. This article describes our experience.

My advice to parents and teachers in districts that do not have clear policies around censorship is to be proactive. The resources mentioned in this post are a great way to start educating yourself and others about the issues and the ways you can avoid unnecessary conflict. The right to read and the right to write are more important than ever to our children, and to our democracy.