Ambridge Book Challenge Highlights Importance of Free Expression

Happy Banned Books Week.

Each year I post a link to the above page of the American Library Association‘s website to the sidebar of this blog. The website includes a comprehensive listing of challenges to books in libraries or schools across the country, and offers resources for educating, reporting on, and dealing effectively with challenges to literature that occur with surprising frequency.

It’s not often that a book-related controversy occurs in our local area, especially so close to this observance. Yet about three weeks ago parents in the Ambridge Area School District were before their school board with criticism as to the use of a book in a ninth grade honors communication class.

The hyperlocal news and events website Ambridge Connection has thus far been the only media outlet to report on the controversy surrounding Jeannette Walls‘ memoir The Glass Castle.

Parents Myron and Keyona Walker complained to the board that their daughter was subjected to, and had to read out loud, portions of the book containing offensive language, much of it racially derogatory. The Walkers also alleged that the teacher was insensitive to their complaints, and declined to assign a different book or otherwise listen to their objections.

An overview of challenges to The Glass Castle since its publication in 2005 is available here.

The website’s reporting was further embellished by the numerous comments in response to it. There are over 30 of them, which I would recommend anyone with a strong interest to review in their entirety. They are illustrative of two things that I believe are essential:

  1. The perspectives of citizens are important, even the ones that you may disagree with.
  2. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects, with some very narrow exceptions, even the most odious speech from official reprisal, repression, or censorship by publicly owned entities, including libraries and schools.

Ambridge Connection co-founder Felicia Mycyk made other comments in a post to her personal Facebook page. This included the following:

I am glad that the book was in question, according the parents their 9th-grade black female had to read it out loud in a class of majority white students pages of this book on previous day —if it was ANY student I would TAKE ISSUE if they would had continued to read this book out loud.

To be put in a compromising position by your teacher to read a book out loud that includes words that a 14 -15-year-old should not.
I value a good life lesson, but note and respect opinions like it has been done in the past.
In my school days and adult days I have been the only black person and only female, It has been character building but not lessons that I should have had to go through.
Allow options – opt out or have private readings and open discussion.

Ms. Mycyk’s thoughts echoed a recurring theme among many who offered comments, including myself – that the content of the book is perhaps not as critical to the issue at hand as how the book was presented and taught by the staff at the high school.

One category of oft-challenged book that enjoys greater appeal to teens and young adults is the graphic novel. The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund spearheads defenses of these texts against numerous challenges.

Among those most frequently challenged is Art Speigelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus, which excels not only as a chronicle of the author’s parents’ experience as survivors of the Holocaust, but of the emotional trauma that can travel across generations. It’s a tough – but necessary – read for anyone interested in things like this which must be remembered, so they are not repeated.

One particular challenge of Maus raised issues similar to the objections raised to The Glass Castle in Ambridge:

Maus was challenged over its portrayal of the Poles. The challenge was made by a Polish-American who is very proud of his heritage, and who had made other suggestions about adding books on Polish history, for our library’s collection, so it was not out of the blue. The thing is, Maus made him uncomfortable, so he didn’t want other people to read it. That is censorship, as opposed to parental guidance.  (emphasis mine)

As a parent, I believe that I have the right to control what my child reads and is exposed to, but I do not have the right to impose those preferences on someone else’s child. Our children need to themselves be challenged to expand their perspective, and to persevere through adversity.

I managed to borrow The Glass Castle from the Sewickley Library – based on what I read, the book is highly illustrative of those values. The salty language, meant to describe the dysfunction inherent in many of the book’s characters, is secondary to that deeper objective.

This is just like the content of most challenged books is secondary to the protections afforded us as citizens by the Bill of Rights, and especially the First Amendment. We evaluate challenges with those protections in mind, and jealously guard the freedoms they allow.

The Ambridge school board elected to suspend the book from classroom use, until additional information on how it was taught could be obtained from the teacher involved.

That teacher should have attempted to accommodate Mr. Walker’s objection by offering an alternate text, while at the same time assuring that The Glass Castle remains available to those students that wish to review it themselves. When teaching a text that may be controversial among some student and/or parent groups, this would appear to be an advisable contingency – one that Ambridge may wish to consider as policy.

I reported this book challenge to the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. Assistant Director Kristin Pekoll replied via e-mail that she would be contacting the school “to see how we can support this book“.

The local web-based news outlet Beaver Countian announced in a recent editorial their intent to shift their investigative focus on the operations of Beaver County school districts. Since then, Ambridge Area has already been the topic of reports on the hiring of a new Assistant Principal whose background has been called into question, and the resignation of a district employee where information was allegedly withheld from the board by Superintendent Cynthia Zurchin. The story includes comments from board members indicating a possibly strained relationship with Ms. Zurchin.

Ambridge and its school board appear to have their hands full with issues that seem to eclipse something as fundamentally sound as a free press and free speech. I’m hopeful they will see fit to reinstate the book soon.

Perhaps the most eloquent defense against some of these attitudes was expressed by USA Today. In a September 16 editorial about attempts to restrict free speech on college campuses, the paper said it very well:

Supporters of such restrictions argue that they are somehow differentiating hate speech or disturbing speech from protected speech. But one of the great things about democracy is that it protects the right to speak even when the words spoken offend or hurt.

Practically speaking, this war on free speech does students a disservice by shielding them from the real world, where they won’t be able to silence co-workers and bosses whose speech they dislike. If students aren’t smart enough or mature enough to understand the values of free speech, it’s up to institutions in the business of education to teach them.

Have a great month ahead.

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One Response to Ambridge Book Challenge Highlights Importance of Free Expression

  1. Pingback: April / May Digest – A, B, C, D, E, and QV | John Linko

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