Vietnam-Era Journalists Testify in Maine's Book-Banning Trial
Bangor, Me--Witnesses, including four prominent authors, spent part of Christmas week in U.S. District Court here debating when four-letter words should be allowed in a school's library.
Meanwhile, Vietnam War veterans clad in jungle fatigues picketed outside in freezing weather, calling for the return of the book 365 Days to the shelves of the Woodland High School library in Baileyville, Me.
The Baileyville school committee banned the book last summer on a three-to-two vote, refusing to submit it to a new "challenged-materials policy," the committee itself had approved under pressure from Michael Sheck, the student who later brought the suit.
Mr. Sheck and other students and parents, with the help of the Maine Civil Liberties Union, challenged the decision in federal court, charging their constitutional First Amendment and due-process rights had been violated. The book has been signed out 32 times since it was purchased by the library in 1971.
"I had to use those words because those words were portrayed to me by the patients I talked to....It's inappropriate and demeaning not to deal with the truth," testified Dr. Ronald Glasser, the Minneapolis pediatrician whose book of vignettes about maimed and dying soldiers in Vietnam and in Japanese army hospitals has been translated into nine languages and nominated for a National Book ward.
The use of four-letter words by soldiers "represents a common language failure," Mr. Glasser told Judge Conrad Cyr. "They couldn't say 'golly gee', and they didn't. It wasn't enough....[The words] showed their anguish. They don't go home and use that language. They were desperate."
In addition to two Vietnam War veterans, those testifying that the book is realistic and appropriate reading for high-school students were the war correspondents and authors Gloria Emerson, Ward Just, and Frances Fitzgerald.
Most high-school history textbooks avoid the subject of the Vietnam War because it is still controversial, said Ms. Fitzgerald, a textbook critic and Pulitzer-Prize-winning historian. But that makes the book all the more important for inclusion in a school library, she added.
Other witnesses included school board members and administrators and Carol Ann Davenport, the parent who lodged the original complaint against the book.
The Rev. Roy Blevins of the Woodland Baptist Church denied that he had launched a campaign to have the book banned. Members of his church include Ms. Davenport and two of the school-committee members who voted for the banning.
Ronald Coles, the plaintiffs' lawyer, argued that a school board has a right to ban pornography, but said that in this case the Baileyville committee subjected a valuable book which is not obscene to their own moral standards. "Part of an education is freedom of choice," he said.
Mr. Coles asked questions designed to show that the school committee had failed to pursue an orderly procedure and had failed to consult educators adequately. His questioning showed that some committee members had not read the book and that there were other books in the same library containing the same objectionable words.
Mr. Coles asked witnesses if they had ever seen a student who had been "morally corrupted" by reading four-letter words. He asked committee members to define exactly how many dirty words a book would have to contain before they would decide to ban it.
At one point, Mr. Coles gave a copy of an unidentified book in a plain brown wrapper and a list of dirty words found in it to Ms. Davenport who said she would not want her daughter to read it without permission.
The book turned out to be a copy of Love Story, which, according to press reports, her daughter had also signed out of the school library and was reading at the time Ms. Davenport objected to 365 Days.
Daniel Lacasse, a lawyer for the committee, asked questions designed to show that committee members had acted systematically with educational goals in mind and were carrying out their duties as elected officials. He argued that the plaintiffs had not demonstrated irreparable injury because they had been able to find the book in other nearby public libraries.
Mr. Lacasse also noted that federal judges have been reluctant to second-guess the decisions of school boards unless it could be demonstrated that a "sharp" constitutional violation had occurred.
During testimony, Mr. Sheck, a former Woodland High School student, said his First Amendment right to "silent protest" had been violated after the book was banned when he attempted to bring a copy he had obtained from the Bangor Public Library to the school to provoke discussion. The principal, he said, told him to remove it from the school or ''he would treat it as if it were Playboy or Hustler Magazine."
John Morrison, the principal, defended the school committee's decison, saying it was the committee's proper role to encourage students to use acceptable language even though students use four-letter words or are exposed to them at school. He agreed that a book need not be read entirely before it is banned.
The high school's librarian, Grace Schillich and its English department chairman, Jean Spearin, as well as one school-committee member, Susan White, voiced opposition to the decision in court testimony.
By late last week, Judge Cyr had given no indication of when he would rule on the case.
Vol. 01, Issue 16