By: Jamie LaRue
In 2019, at least four books were publicly challenged in the United States because they were read aloud.
There’s one public library case. A children’s librarian in Kalispell, Mont., provided a free storytime for students visiting from a Catholic daycare. One of the books was Prince and Knight, a children’s book about a prince who finds his true love—and it’s another man. A complaint about the book, filed by the daycare teacher, not only protested the exposure of “innocent school children” to the topic (of gayness?), but also called for the outright removal of the book from the library. The issue worked its way through the library’s request for reconsideration process, letters to the editor, and the public opining of county commissioners.
It’s important to know that the book was retained. More important was that queer members of the community themselves had a chance to speak up at public library trustee meetings. It should surprise no one that there are LGBT people in Montana, and even in Kalispell. They pay taxes, and they use the library. They also remember what it was like to be young (even preschool age), and desperate to find confirmation that they were not the only people romantically drawn to persons of their own gender.
To be clear: hearing this testimony did not immediately change the minds of those opposed to the book, nor end their calls to ban the book and fire the children’s librarian who had read it.
But for others, it was apparent that the tenets of modern librarianship, beginning with the 1939 adoption of the Library Bill of Rights, provide direct guidance. The purpose of the library is to tell the stories of human experience, not to suppress them.
The remaining three challenges all took place in public schools. And two of the three again concern LGBT issues.
In Rocklin,Calif., a charter school kindergarten teacher read I am Jazz, a book about a transgender girl, to the class. The act sparked conservative fury, and pulled in over 500 people to an emotional school board meeting. In a stinging rebuke to those conservatives, the charter school association commended the teacher, Kaelin Swaney, for “her commitment to providing a safe learning environment for all children.” The association named her Hart Vision Teacher of the Year at its annual conference in San Diego.
Next up was Pride: The Story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag. This children’s book, a biography of the real-life California politician and gay rights activist, was read aloud to a second grade class at the Henry Clay Elementary School in Hanover, Virg. The mother complained, “I think the topic was very heavy, I think it was very inappropriate.” Would she have felt the same way about a book about Rosa Parks, or is the topic of civil rights for African Americans also too heavy for elementary students? Or is it only too heavy for white elementary students? Should we withhold information about World War II, a standard curricular topic, from young students, or is that a lighter topic? Clearly, the complaint is focused on the cause itself, not the weight of it.
Finally, there was the case of a substitute teacher at the Mustang High School in Oklahoma. The only black student in the class protested when the teacher read aloud from To Kill a Mockingbird, quoting the N-word. At first, the school district backed the teacher, who said he had been reading it aloud for years, although no other teachers in the school were doing so. After further consideration, school officials announced in a statement, “This racially charged language will no longer be spoken in classrooms, and we are using this opportunity as a teachable moment for staff and students alike. It was never our intention to put students in this situation, and for that we are deeply sorry.”
There are some surface similarities to the cases: an offended party, a demand that others are silent about a perspective. But there are differences, too.
The first three cases are about protesting a positive portrayal of a group one objects to. The last protests deliberately offensive language that targets a group.
The first three cases come from a majority perspective. They want to squash the minority perspective. But the last case is about a lone, minority individual forced by a public institution to listen to that offensive language, while surrounded by the majority. Reading such language aloud in that setting might even encourage and empower abuse by the majority, although surely that wasn’t the school’s intent.
From a First Amendment standpoint, we are free to speak, write, and read, even read aloud, the broadest possible range of viewpoints, including those that are offensive. Any argument we use to pose a right not to be contradicted or offended can be claimed by any other group, demanding silence by all.
But in the end, this last case isn’t so much a free speech question as a matter of educational best practice, and simple human courtesy. Is there educational merit in reading and discussing works of classic literature, even ones that deal with humans mistreating others? Yes. Of course. To kill A Mockingbird is one example. The Diary of Anne Frank is another.
Teachers also have an obligation to look after the general well-being of the students. At the high school level, books may be read silently, especially when reading them aloud embarrasses and intimidates students who may feel vulnerable and belong to groups that have been historically persecuted.
To insist on the practice of reading epithets aloud in a class where one student is the only black person, or only Jew, or only lesbian looks, in the end, like clueless privilege. It reveals a lack of empathy and emotional intelligence. To defend it in the name of free speech is an argument for rude and gratuitous humiliation.
It is certainly the case that there is hatred and discrimination in the world. We need to identify and talk about it. But how we do that is the difference between respecting the dignity of every student, or perpetuating the problem.
Jamie LaRue is a former public library administrator, former director of the Freedom to Read Foundation and ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, and a current consultant and speaker.