Federal Suit Challenges Bannings, Policy in Florida District

By Kirsten Goldberg — May 20, 1987 4 min read

By banning two novels and adopting a policy that prohibits the use of more than 60 other books, the Bay County (Fla.) School Board has violated the First Amendment rights of students, teachers, and parents, a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court charges.

The suit--filed by more than 40 plaintiffs on May 12 in Pensacola, Fla.--challenges several actions taken over the past year by the local school board and the district’s superintendent, Leonard Hall.

The case addresses the question of whether the students’ and teachers’ rights to the free expression of ideas are compromised by the school board’s authority to make curricular decisions, said Pamela Dru Sutton, a lawyer for the plaintiffs.

The suit could have a considerable impact on school law, she said, noting that there has not been much litigation on this issue.

School-district officials last week refused to comment on the suit, which names the school board, Mr. Hall, and Joel Creel, the principal of Mowat Junior High School, as defendants. The school board has 20 days to respond to the complaint, Ms. Sutton said.

The focus of the suit is the board’s decision last spring to ban I Am the Cheese, a novel by Robert Cormier, which had been used for three years in English classes at Mowat Junior High in Panama City. In 1985, the school’s English department was named by the National Council of Teachers of English as one of 150 “centers of excellence’’ in the United States and Canada.

The board’s action was prompted by a complaint from a parent of a student in an accelerated 7th-grade class that used the book.

Although a district review committee recommended that the book be retained in the curriculum, the school board, on Mr. Hall’s suggestion, ruled that the book and “any other material not specifically approved by the school board’’ be removed from the district’s classrooms.

‘Obscene Language’

The book was deemed by school officials to contain “vulgar and obscene language’’ that was not appropriate for junior-high-school students, according to the lawsuit. During the controversy, the plaintiffs state, teachers received anonymous threatening letters and phone calls.

As a result of the controversy, according to the lawsuit, the school board last spring adopted a policy requiring all instructional materials to be approved by the superintendent prior to classroom use.

The policy, which took effect earlier this year, states: “It shall be the policy of this school district not to use instructional material which contains vulgar, obscene, or sexually explicit material unless they are outweighed by the work’s literary value.’'

The dispute heated up this spring after the policy on curricular materials was implemented and Mr. Hall asked the school board to prohibit the use of Never Cry Wolf, written by the naturalist Farley Mowat, because it contains an expletive.

According to the lawsuit, Mr. Hall announced then that only “old classics’’ have literary value to outweigh any vulgar language in books.

Subsequently, the superintendent put a hold on the process by which instructional materials were to be approved under the policy, the suit states, and created four new criteria for teachers to use in submitting rationales for their curricula.

In response to the directive, teachers at the district’s two high schools submitted a list of 67 books that “contain the occasional use of the word ‘goddamn,’ and/or contain vulgar, obscene, or sexually explicit material,’' and thus are unacceptable under the directive.

Under the new interpretation of the policy, the books are to be removed from the district’s classrooms. The books include such classics as William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, The Merchant of Venice, King Lear, and Hamlet; Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex; Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations; Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea; Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales; Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage; Charlotte Bronte’s Wuthering Heights; and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

Support for the Suit

People for the American Way, a civil-liberties group that supported the defendants in the Mobile, Ala., secular-humanism case and the Church Hill, Tenn., textbook case, is aiding the plaintiffs in the Florida suit.

According to the plaintiffs, the school superintendent has said that he believed he was elected to his post to “restore Christian values’’ to the Bay County schools.

“The superintendent has now turned out many of the greatest works of American and world literature,’' said John Buchanan, chairman of People for the American Way. “At the same time, he has thrown out the First Amendment rights of students and teachers, and the idea that education should be about excellence.’'

Noting that one of the banned books is Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, a novel about book burning, Arthur J. Kropp, executive director of the organization, charged that the superintendent had “moved the schools closer to the imaginary world Bradbury created.’'

“What goes up in smoke in the novel and out the window in Panama City is freedom of expression,’' he said.

According to Ms. Sutton, the plaintiffs are not seeking monetary damages in the suit. “Our clients have said they want books, not bucks,’' she said.

A version of this article appeared in the May 20, 1987 edition of Education Week as Federal Suit Challenges Bannings, Policy in Florida District