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Take Note: By the Book

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A war of words between a Virginia elementary school and radio commentator Rush Limbaugh has escalated into a court case in which both sides say weighty issues are at stake.

A Bedford County, Va., parent filed a lawsuit last week in federal court, arguing that his son's 4th-grade teacher trampled on the boy's constitutional rights by confiscating a book by Mr. Limbaugh. The boy had brought the best-selling The Way Things Ought to Be to school--with his father's permission--for a silent reading period. The teacher, however, took it away after noting that one of the chapters was titled "Condoms: The New Diploma."

Administrators of the 10,000-student Bedford County district back the teacher's action, saying the chapter--which included an advertising parody about a condom so strong that it doubles as bungee jumping cord--was inappropriate for a 4th grader.

But Mr. Limbaugh has charged on his nationally syndicated radio talk show that the teacher and the school administrators were motivated by liberal politics and their dislike for his conservative views. His listeners in turn have swamped the school with calls of protest.

In his lawsuit, the father, Thomas Gardner, argues that the teacher at Montvale Elementary School violated his First Amendment rights to sanction what his child reads. Legally, a school official could have taken the book from the boy if it were obscene, said John Lichtenstein, a lawyer representing the father. But, he said, the book is not obscene and argues that schools should teach sexual abstinence.

Noting the furor about the incident among Mr. Limbaugh's legions of listeners, the lawyer said: "We're not working on behalf of Mr. Limbaugh. It's much bigger than Rush."

Schools Superintendent John Kent said that politics was not a motivator for either the teacher or other administrators.

"The authorship of the book has never been a question," Mr. Kent said. "It's whether the material was appropriate for a 9-year-old child."

"I think the issue is bigger" than the controversy, Mr. Kent said. "The question is: Do the schools have a right to review outside material and determine its appropriateness?"

--Drew Lindsay

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