Education

Schools Can’t Ban Books Because of Complaints, Court Says

By Mark Walsh — October 28, 1998 4 min read
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Removing controversial books such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from the curriculum because of parental complaints about their content would be a violation of students’ First Amendment rights to receive information, a federal appeals court ruled last week.

But the three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit also ruled unanimously that districts have a duty under federal law to eliminate any racially hostile environment in schools, including racial harassment of a student by other students.

That duty does not extend, however, to eliminating assigned reading materials--such as Huckleberry Finn--that students or parents might deem racially offensive.

“Permitting lawsuits against school districts on the basis of the content of literary works ... could have a significant chilling effect on a school district’s willingness to assign books with themes, characters, snippets of dialogue, or words that might offend the sensibilities of any number of persons or groups,” the San Francisco-based appellate panel said in its Oct. 19 opinion.

The ruling came in a case in which a black Arizona parent, citing the frequent use of the word “nigger” in the Mark Twain classic, challenged the mandatory assignment of the book.

The parent, Kathy Monteiro, alleged that the assignment of Huckleberry Finn and the William Faulkner short story “A Rose for Emily,” which also uses the racial epithet, in her daughter’s freshman English class amounted to racial harassment.

Her lawsuit also alleged that her daughter and other African-American students at McClintock High School in Tempe, Ariz., were subjected to racial taunts from other students, which increased after the assignment of the Twain and Faulkner works. School district officials did not respond to the complaints of racial harassment, the suit contended.

Ms. Monteiro sued the Tempe Union High School District under the 14th Amendment’s equal-protection clause and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits racial discrimination in programs receiving federal funding.

A federal district court threw the lawsuit out. The 9th Circuit court upheld the lower court’s ruling on challenges to controversial literary works, but it reinstated the portion of the suit alleging that district officials failed to respond to racial harassment of Ms. Monteiro’s daughter by other students.

National Controversy

Huckleberry Finn, widely considered one of the greatest American novels, has come under fire for years from some African-American parents and organizations for its 215 uses of “nigger.”

Just last year, for example, the Pennsylvania chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People called on educators in the state to remove the novel from required reading lists.

Defenders of the book say that the word represents the vernacular used in the 1840s, when the story is set, and that the novel is ultimately not racist because Huck Finn acts to help to free his slave friend, Jim.

But critics argue that the frequent use of the word can cause emotional harm to today’s African-American students.

In her lawsuit, Ms. Monteiro said the assignment of the Twain novel and the Faulkner short story inflicted psychological injuries on her daughter and other black students. She did not seek to remove the works from a voluntary reading list, but only from mandatory assignments.

In his opinion in Monteiro v. Tempe Union High School District, U.S. Circuit Judge Stephen Reinhardt acknowledged that the racial epithet is “uniquely provocative and demeaning” to blacks.

But requiring a district to accept a demand from a parent to remove a book such as Huck Finn would prompt challenges of other works, he said.

Jews might be offended by Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,” female students might seek damages for being required to read works by Tennessee Williams or Ernest Hemingway, and whites “could seek to remove books by Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, and other prominent black authors on the grounds that they portray Caucasians in a derogatory fashion,” the judge said.

The threat of litigation would lead districts to try to steer clear of provocative works, Judge Reinhardt said.

Acceding to such requests would infringe students’ First Amendment right to receive information, including controversial information, and would “significantly interfere with the district’s discretion to determine the composition of its curriculum,” he wrote.

In a brief concurring opinion, U.S. Circuit Judge Robert Boochever suggested a district might violate Title VI if it assigned as required reading books “with overt messages of racial hatred, such as those promoting the views of the Aryan Nation, the Ku Klux Klan, and similar hate groups.”

Peer Harassment

Judge Reinhardt said the court was skeptical that the alleged increase in racial taunts of black students at McClintock High School was caused by the assignment of Huckleberry Finn or “A Rose for Emily.”

But the panel ruled that Ms. Monteiro’s lawsuit “alleges a pattern of egregious public racial harassment” and that black parents’ complaints were rebuffed by school officials.

Judge Reinhardt said the ruling appeared to be the first by any federal court to hold that schools can be held responsible under Title VI for failing to respond to racial harassment of students by their peers.

The opinion endorsed guidance on the topic issued in 1994 by the U.S. Department of Education.

A school in which racial harassment of students by other students “occurs unchecked is utterly failing in its mandate to provide a nondiscriminatory educational environment,” Judge Reinhardt said.

The ruling sends Ms. Monteiro’s suit back to the federal district court in Phoenix for further proceedings on the peer-racial-harassment issue.

A version of this article appeared in the October 28, 1998 edition of Education Week as Schools Can’t Ban Books Because of Complaints, Court Says

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