Worries before Banned Books Week

  • Corinne Chronopoulos, director of Peterborough Town Library, poses for a photo. The library will host a reading of the work of Salman Rushdie on Sept. 22. COURTESY PHOTO

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 9/14/2022 4:54:13 PM
Modified: 9/14/2022 4:53:44 PM

Earlier this year, Utah passed a law suppressing “sensitive materials” in classrooms, and in New Hampshire, bills have been put forward that could reshape school curriculums and limit a teacher’s ability to teach from books containing certain themes or about ideas that others may find objectionable.

Professionals in the field of education, say such restrictions — which can come with disciplinary sanctions — can and do have a chilling effect, leading teachers and librarians to desert their positions.

Banned Books Week

As part of Banned Books Week, launched in 1982 by First Amendment and library activist Judith Krug, Ingalls Memorial Library in Rindge will present four movies based on books that have been challenged: “1984,” based on the book of the same name by George Orwell, Sept. 19; “Of Mice and Men,” based on John Steinbeck’s novel, Sept. 20; “The Color Purple,” based on Alice Walker’s Pulitzer-winning novel, Sept. 21; and “To Kill a Mockingbird,” based on the Pulitzer-winning novel by Harper Lee, Sept. 22.

All movies will be shown in the Symonds Room at the library from 1 to 3 p.m.

At Peterborough Town Library, the work of Salman Rushdie will be read aloud Sept. 22 at 6 p.m. in the 1833 Room. Librarians and representatives from Monadnock Writers’ Group, Mariposa Museum, GoMonadnock, The Revolution Ethics Project, Monadnock Underground, Peterborough Players, the Monadnock Summer Lyceum, MacDowell and Avenue A will read excerpts from Rushdie’s books and writings.

Letters of support will also be written and collected at the event to send to Rushdie, who is recovering after he was stabbed in August.

“The event is meant to bring attention to the importance of the freedom of expression and free access to ideas. We stand in solidarity with all authors facing threats or calls for restrictions on their work. It is one of the most-important core tenets of the public library to fight against censorship. We do not believe authors should be silenced; we believe individuals have the right to use their own critical judgment to make up their own minds about what they read,” stated Library Director Corinne Chronopoulos.

The event is free and open to the public.

A first-hand experience with banned books

Mascenic High School English teacher Penny Culliton has been taking risks and pushing back in her classroom for many years when it comes to what she can and can’t teach. Recently, she has been concerned about three bills in the state Legislature that she believes are all designed to keep people marginalized.

These bills, HB 1015, HB 1255 and HB 1434, together, would require school districts to adopt policies allowing exceptions to specific course material objected to by parents or legal guardians, require parental notification of curriculums and prohibit the advocacy of “subversive doctrines” including communism and Marxism, violations of which could bring disciplinary sanctions.

“The people behind discriminatory laws generally want there to be someone on the ‘rung of society’ below them, so that they can point to that groups and say, ‘I may be poor, uneducated, etc., but at least I’m not that,’ ” Culliton said.

In 1995, Culliton was fired from the school district she was working in for refusing to remove books with positive portrayals of gay and lesbian people in them. She was reinstated by an arbitrator’s decision after a one-year suspension. She believes the proposed bills, which have been tabled at the moment, make a teacher’s job impossible and make it difficult to find good teachers.

Just last year, while teaching Willa Cather’s 1905 story “Paul’s Case,” Culliton decided to provide students with a choice of writing a case history of the protagonist or doing something more creative and writing his suicide note.

“I was told I could not give students the choice of the suicide note,” she said. “Not requiring them to do this I can understand. But disallowing the choice, no. With one of the books in 1995, the case was the same. My honors 12th-grade had a choice of reading ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’ or ‘Maurice.’ They were made to turn the ‘Maurice’ books in to the office.”

Culliton said the attention “Paul’s Case” received last year is new.

“I had given the ‘choice’ of the suicide note before, in past years, several times,” she said. “Some students chose it and others did not and chose another option. There were never any problem.”

The most-disturbing thing about this, Culliton said, is that unlike 1995, students last year “seemed OK with being disallowed a choice.”

University of New Hampshire law professor John Greabe said that while children have First Amendment rights, schools have greater authority for choosing books. He cited the Government Speech Doctrine, which entitles government to express certain viewpoints and to discriminate based on content just like any other speaker.

“The legislation last year, the so called ‘divisive concepts law,’ for instance, bans certain topics from being advocated,” Greabe says. “How is this consistent with First Amendment, and I’m not saying there aren’t constitutional issues with that law, there can be, but the basic idea is that when putting together a curriculum a public school needs to make choices. Not realistic to say it needs to be viewpoint-neutral and the same goes with books in a school setting.”

Greabe said school boards are entitled to make decisions on what’s covered, and that if a parent were to challenge a school’s decision to remove a book, there would be latitude in the school context. In a town library context, he said, this is different because libraries cater to adults.

“In that context, a litigant would have to establish that a librarian who is an agent of government is engaging in unlawful viewpoint discrimination,” he said. “That would be hard to show unless the librarian says, ‘I’m getting rid of all of these authors.’ ”

A university perspective

University of New Hampshire English professor Brigitte Bailey said she has a great deal of intellectual freedom. She has not been told she cannot teach certain books but said that colleagues of have been threatened and trolled when teaching subjects and books that are controversial. And bills like those that Culliton is concerned with would negatively affect teacher morale and make it more difficult to find good teachers in public schools, she said.

“Teachers are already underpaid, undervalued and, I think, underrepresented in these political debates,” she said. “Fewer students are going into the teaching profession.”

Asked whether she believes there are books that should be off-limits, Bailey said it depends on the grade level. In a college survey of American literature, she teaches Frederick Douglass’s narrative of his life as an enslaved person and excerpts from antebellum pro-slavery writings where students get to see what specific ideas Douglass is arguing against.

“[Is] this appropriate for elementary school classes? Maybe not,” she said. “But I would rely on teachers at other levels of education to determine what texts work for their students. Teachers are professionals, often with a great deal of experience — we need to trust them to make these decisions.”

Creating a well-educated populace

Culliton believes that if parents want the students to have alternatives that’s one thing. “but to forbid others to study/teach [certain books or ideas] or to have a choice of what assessment to complete is quite different, I think,” adding that riskiest literature she teaches typically involves LGBTQIA+- related subjects.

“There are some people who fear eternal separation from loved ones if the loved ones read these,” she says. “But the latest thing seems to claim it will be traumatic for students, something I take issue with.”

The intent behind the proposed legislation limiting teachers’ ability to teach certain topics, Culliton said, is ultimately to destroy public education in New Hampshire.

“It really has nothing to do with religion or sexuality or trauma (except in very, very rare cases for trauma),” she said. “It is part of an attempt to make sure there is not a well-educated populace, which it is the job of public schools to produce. Extremist demagogues don’t like education for the masses.”

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