School Board's Authority To Ban Book Faces a Federal-Court Test in Maine
In a censorship case that has attracted national attention, the authority of the Baileyville, Me., school committee to ban a book from the high-school library will be challenged in U.S. District Court in Bangor later this month. At issue are the First Amendment rights of students and adults served by the public high school.
The class-action suit, filed by the Maine Civil Liberties Union on behalf of Michael Sheck, a former student at Woodland High School, and four current students and their parents, asks the court to issue a permanent injunction to return the book, 365 Days, to the shelves of the district's high-school library.
The book was written by Dr. Ronald J. Glasser, a Minnesota pediatrician who, while on a tour of duty as a medical officer assigned to a U.S. Army hospital in Japan, volunteered to treat American soldiers sent there after being wounded in Vietnam.
It was hailed by literary critics at the time of its publication 10 years ago for its honest portrayal of the soldiers and the war.
The book was ordered removed from the high-school library by the school committee last April after the parents of one student complained about the expletives and four-letter words it contained.
Censorship Cases Increasing
The case, scheduled for a Dec. 21 hearing, is one of a growing number of battles centered on book censorship in the public schools throughout the country.
A similar court case, Island Trees Union Free School District v. Steven Pico, is awaiting action by the U.S. Supreme Court during its current term.
Although the Baileyville case is before a lower court, Ronald R. Coles, the attorney for the plaintiffs, says the decision could affect the Supreme Court's decision in the Pico case. The Maine case has also attracted national media attention, including a request by an independent film company to allow its film crew to record the proceedings.
In addition, at least two authors who covered the Vietnam War as newspaper correspondents are expected to testify during the two-day trial scheduled to begin later this month.
The court's decision will affect students and adults in eight communities that make up the school district. The controversy stirred by the issue of book censorship has served to divide residents of these eastern Maine communities into two factions.
Mr. Coles described the Baileyville case as a struggle between the "old guard" in a "one-industry town" and those persons whom the "old guard" types refer to as "being from away and bringing radical ideas like First Amendment rights."
Mr. Sheck, who his attorney says "is from away," objected to the school committee's decision to ban the book and successfully fought to have the school committee adopt a policy establishing an independent review panel and procedures to be followed when literature from the school library is challenged.
While the "contested material policy" was being formulated, Dr. Glasser's book was placed on a "restricted shelf in the library" and only students with parental approval were allowed to read it, according to Mr. Coles.
But, when Mr. Scheck requested that the Dr. Glasser's book be submitted to the review panel, three of the five school-committee members voted against the request on the grounds that they had already "made up their minds" about its suitability for high-school students and banned the book permanently from the library. Francis A. Brown, the school committee's attorney, said the high-school library is shared by junior-high-school students and that it would be possible for younger students to have access to Dr. Glasser's book.
He said he does not quite understand the committee's rationale in refusing to apply the new policy to the book.
Mr. Brown said the school committee believes its concern over the book's use of "language many people deem inappropriate for youngsters" outweighs First Amendment rights.
Also at issue, he said, is the "degree of authority" the committee has to restrict books in the library when minors are involved.
Until the April action, the book, published in 1971 by George Braziller, Inc., had been available in the Woodland High School library for 10 years. According to court papers filed by Mr. Coles, it was checked out of the library on "approximately 32 occasions" before being banned.
Arbitrary Action Argued
Mr. Coles will argue in court that the school committee acted arbitrarily when it first banned the book and then refused to submit it to the review process.
He contends that the school committee's action violates First Amendment's freedom of speech and freedom of access clauses, as well as the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
In court papers, Mr. Coles said the school committee "categorized certain words taken out of context from 365 Days as being offensive and abusive."
The book, he continued, is of literary value as a non-fiction account of the Vietnam War, and thus is relevant reading in modern history for adults and secondary-school students.
"The school committee has made a really bad mistake," Mr. Coles said during a recent interview. "It's a great book that couldn't be interpreted as obscene by any standards.
"We're confident we will get a court injunction, and that the judge will write an opinion that will affect the Pico decision," Mr. Coles said.