OIF and other organizations oppose book ratings system in West Virginia school system

Intellectual Freedom Issues

This fall, a parent filed a challenge with the Kanawa County, WV school board, asking the board to remove two Pat Conroy novels, The Prince of Tides and Beach Music, from Nitro High School’s Advanced Placement English curriculum. The Kanawha County school board members are now considering a policy that would require adding advisory ratings to books used in the classroom as a means of addressing debates over controversial texts.

Today, the Office for Intellectual Freedom and five other organizations committed to defending intellectual freedom sent a letter to the editor of the Charleston Gazette, pointing out the problems with instituting a ratings system for books and encouraging the Kanawa County school board to retain its current book policies:

To the Editors:

Kanawha County School Board may have already violated the First Amendment rights of its students and their parents by banning Pat Conroy’s The Prince of Tides and Beach Music. The board’s recent proposal to adopt a rating system for books compounds the problem. Such a system would impose impractical and arbitrary standards for selecting educational materials and create a chilling effect limiting what students read.

Single-letter ratings, such as the board proposes, are inherently reductive and subjective. Novels and other complex materials can’t be described by a letter, and it would be impossible to ensure that materials are rated consistently. For example, does a single instance of profanity warrant an “L” (for “language) rating, or is it 10 instances, or 100? Would the violence in the Bible or Shakespeare require a “V” label? What would be the criteria for labeling something “mature” content?

The effort to apply ratings will inevitably place an overwhelming burden on schools and educators. Even deciding who would do the rating raises problems. There is no way to ensure that different individuals will judge things the same way. Moreover, such a policy would leave the district vulnerable to multiple, possibly conflicting objections to how material is rated, and make the district vulnerable to continuing controversies and potentially even legal challenges.

The current policy is more than sufficient. Parents who object to a particular book may request an alternative assignment. Instead of rating books, the school board should encourage teachers to explain to parents how and why they select certain materials and what educational purposes these materials serve for their children. Focusing on the educational criteria for curricular selections would provide a meaningful, sound and defensible way to evaluate books.

Joan Bertin, Executive Director, National Coalition Against Censorship

Chris Finan, President, American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression

Kent Williamson, National Council of Teachers of English

Judith Platt, Director, Freedom to Read, Association of American Publishers

Larry Siems, PEN American Center

Judith Krug, Office for Intellectual Freedom, American Library Association

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