By Tess Wilson
(The following post is part of the Librarians Lead Against Censorship blog series. In celebration of National Library Week and its theme “Libraries Lead,” the Intellectual Freedom Blog is highlighting the voices and experiences of fierce librarians who have defended the right to read in the past year. Learn more about the Top Ten Most Challenged Books of 2017 and this year’s Banned Books Week theme “Banning Books Silences Stories. Speak Out!” at ala.org/bbooks/NLW-Top10.)
After a Dixie County School District parent expressed concern about students reading Ernest J. Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying, the superintendent issued a directive expressly forbidding material “contain[ing] any profanity, cursing, or inappropriate subject matter.” Library Media Specialist Lindsey Whittington stood up for the intellectual freedom of her students and delivered an impassioned defense of First Amendment rights. It was her tireless work that earned her this year’s John Phillip Immroth Memorial Award.
OIF Blog: Tell me a bit about your work in the Dixie County School District. How long have you been in your current position?
Lindsey Whittington: I have worked in the Dixie County School District for 11 years. Dixie County High School, where I currently serve as AP English Language teacher and library media specialist, is actually my alma mater. I graduated from here in 2003 and then came back because I realized that we needed to revamp our English department in order to better prepare students for college. I am now the head of the English Department and help select the anchor texts and summer reading novels that are used throughout the school. Additionally, I am president of my teacher’s union and work to improve teacher working conditions, handle contract language, and negotiate salary.
Throughout my career, I have taught everything from remedial reading, academy English, and 10th, 11th, and 12th grade English. I realized quickly that our school needed to bring back its advanced placement program and requested to attend a summer institute in order to be able to teach AP English Literature since literature and writing are my two biggest passions. He consented, and I spent 7 years teaching AP English Literature. It was during that time that I realized that my true passion was in making students fall in love with reading. I knew that the current library media specialist was retiring, so I arranged to get my MLIS degree in order to fill her shoes when the time came. Now, I have the best of both worlds because I get to teach students the art of rhetoric through AP Language, and then I also get to spend time providing reader’s advisory and helping other students and teachers through the library.
OIF Blog: How often does the collection face challenges to materials? What is the Dixie County existing policy regarding challenged materials?
Lindsey Whittington: The library collection has never faced a challenge to my knowledge; however, specific novels over the years have been censored from the classroom, such as Of Mice and Men and Catcher in the Rye. These are still available for checkout but have been deemed inappropriate for direct instruction due to their curse words. Although, if a new teacher was hired that was very passionate about teaching either of these particular texts, I would certainly help them form an appeal to the district curriculum committee. The advanced courses such as AP or dual enrollment do not have to abide by the challenge policy. It basically says that there is a curriculum committee that is made up of stakeholders such as parents, retired educators, and other community members who will make the final decision when an appeal is made.
OIF Blog: What was different about the A Lesson Before Dying case?
Lindsey Whittington: The Lesson Before Dying case was different because it involved the superintendent issuing a directive that contained a broad statement, which if adhered to, would cause the censorship and removal of most of my library materials and all other instructional materials in the district.
His directive stated: “As of September 8, 2017, no instructional materials (textbooks, library books, classroom novels, etc.) purchased and/or used by the school district shall contain any profanity, cursing, or inappropriate subject matter. This directive reflects the values of the Superintendent, School Board, and the community. However, I do realize that AP and Dual Enrollment classes may have set reading requirements that contain questionable material that the local district does not have control over. These will be the only materials allowed to be used in our district, provided they do not substantially violate community standards.”
As you can see, saying NO Instructional materials containing ANY profanity, cursing, or inappropriate subject matter begs the question as to who determines level of appropriateness and basically censors most of classical literature. Works such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, anything by William Shakespeare, and even The Bible would have to be removed. Although he did not intend the directive to come off this way, as media specialist, head of the English Department, and as a parent, I could not let this directive stand. I fought it on the basis of a violation of academic freedom in my professional contract as a teacher as well as a violation of intellectual freedom on behalf of the students.
OIF Blog: What was your community’s response? Your school’s?
Lindsey Whittington: My school appeared to show support to me as I went through the grievance process. However, the truly phenomenal support came from some members of the community, state, and even from across the nation. Library and other professional organizations from around the country sent letters to the superintendent and school board members asking them to remove the directive. I called it the “literary blitz” because it was a never-ending slew of phone calls, letters, and emails that did not cease until the district agreed to create the curriculum committee and basically deem the directive null and void. The curriculum committee, not the superintendent, now have the power for handling challenged materials.
OIF Blog: In your defense of your students’ right to read, you said, “Isn’t the point of education to teach students how to think, not what to think?” Do you bring conversations about intellectual freedom into the classroom?
Lindsey Whittington: I definitely bring conversations regarding intellectual freedom into the classroom. Ironically, this case happened just a week before Banned Books Week and you can be sure I celebrated Banned Books Week with passion. All of the students in my AP English Language class chose a “banned book” and then read the book, wrote a paper regarding the literary merit of the book, and then did a class presentation on whether or not the book is deserving of being taught and read in schools across America. The students overwhelmingly loved their books and regarded them as of the highest literary merit, despite their title as being “banned.” However, intellectual freedom is a very relevant topic to school curriculum at all times, not just one to be regarded one week a year.
OIF Blog: When it comes to current events or issues concerning intellectual freedom, what have you find encouraging? Discouraging?
Lindsey Whittington: The recent push to remove certified media specialists from schools across the country and to reduce library hours to part time is very discouraging, especially since there is so much research that supports the positive correlation between certified media specialists and student achievement. It is also discouraging to hear bad legislation pass that takes power for the selection of materials away from the library media specialists and forces them to only adhere to district or curriculum committee’s decisions for materials when these are not the people who have been trained in this area. The new instructional materials law is one such example of policy that allows parents to challenge materials such as textbooks if they find subjects offensive such as evolution or climate change.
However, there are still those such as myself who are willing to defy these unsettling policies and who have provided me much encouragement. I find the wealth of organizations who all banned together to support me as one of the most uplifting moments of my career. Florida Association for Media Education (FAME), Florida Library Association and the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom, the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC), and the National Council for Teachers of English (NCTE) all came to my rescue. I am now the co-chair for the intellectual freedom committee of FAME as well as on their legislative action committee. I am also a part of the Florida Education Defenders, a group made up of people across the country who protect intellectual freedom, monitor censorship cases, and lobby to pass legislation that promotes policy to strengthen libraries and inhibit censorship.
Tess Wilson works in the Job and Career Education Center at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, and at the Carnegie Free Library of Swissvale. Her writing can be found on the YALSA Blog, and on the Carnegie Library’s blog. She is a collector of everything from big dictionaries to small rocks, and her latest acquisitions were an MFA in Creative Writing of Poetry from Chatham University and an MLIS from the University of Pittsburgh. Find her on Twitter @tesskwg.