|Free Speech Victory in Zeeland
Read the story of a successful anti-censorship campaign.
On November 22, 1999, Gary L. Feenstra, the superintendent
of schools in Zeeland, Michigan, banned classroom readings of the Harry
Potter books in class in grades five through eight and ordered the books
removed from display in the school libraries. The following is the text
of a memo setting forth his policy and the letter that the American
Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression has sent protesting these
The Memo that Started the Zeeland Controversy:
DATE: November 22, 1999
TO: Administrators and K-8 Teaching Staff
FROM: Gary L. Feenstra
REGARDING: Harry Potter Books
Much discussion is presently being generated across the country regarding the Harry Potter book series. People on both sides of the issues have voiced their views concerning the appropriateness of the series for our children. The interesting fact is that within various circles of people with common beliefs, many are divided on this issue.
After reading the first book in the series, reading critiques of the series from all the sides, and discussing the issues with internal and external educators, I have come to the decision that for Zeeland Public Schools, the books will not be banned. I am, however, placing some restrictions on the series of books as follows:
1. It is appropriate for grades 5 through 8.
2. It will not be placed on the shelves in Zeeland Public School's libraries, but will be made available for check out to students with written parental permission.
3. It will not be used in the classroom for read-a-loud purposes or as part of the regular curriculum. Student selecting a Harry Potter for a book report can do so with prior written parental permission.
4. Any future books beyond book 3 in the Harry Potter series will not be purchased for our libraries but will be available through local libraries and bookstores.
With regard to the selection of books for read-a-loud purposesteachers please take note: The instructional method of reading aloud to students offers one of the strongest reading influences available. Literature comes alive for many students when they hear a story read by their teacher. Such role modeling is outstanding for all of our youth, particularly when students are exposed to literature they otherwise might not have chosen to read. I also believe that all students should be included in this classroom activity. Therefore, the literature selected should be of quality writing and not be controversial to any student in the classroom situation, which might eliminate a child from participation in the read-a-loud.
I thank each of you for your dedication to the instruction of our children through literature. It is not often you will hear from me regarding the selection of books. When you do, however, you can be assured that I have done my homework on the issues and will always strive to make decisions that I feel best represent the Zeeland community and Zeeland Public Schools.
January 31, 2000
Gary L. Feenstra
Dear Superintendent Feenstra,
I am writing to you on behalf of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, which was established in 1990 to help defend free expression, particularly as it relates to the printed word. ABFFE's members are independent booksellers from around the country, and many of them are enthusiastic supporters of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books.
An ABFFE member in Michigan has drawn our attention to your memo of November 22, 1999, imposing restrictions on the use of the Potter books in the Zeeland Public Schools. In the memo, you prohibit school libraries from displaying the Potter books on their shelves and bar the use of the books for classroom readings. You also require parental permission before a child can check the books out of the library or use them to prepare a book report. Finally, you indicate that your school district will not purchase any future Potter titles.
Your memo demonstrates a commendable concern for the rights of the minority of children whose parents would not wish them to be exposed to the depiction of witchcraft in the Potter books. By all accounts, this is a very small minority. Not even all the parents who object to the Potter books would insist that they not be read aloud or made available in the libraries. Nevertheless, your restrictions are obviously well intended.
But we believe that your desire to protect the minority has led you into the same error as those who insist that the majority has the right to suppress speech that it finds offensive. Censorship isn't different because it is imposed at the behest of a minority rather than the majority: both deprive people of their right to read, see or hear something that someone else thinks is bad for them.
In this case, you have denied children the opportunity to encounter some extraordinary books that they may otherwise never know. They can't hear them read in class. They can't pick them up in the library. But it isn't only children who will not get a chance to examine them. Parents normally become aware of the books their children are using in school when they bring them home. By requiring prior parental permission to borrow the Potter books from the library, you have foreclosed the possibility that many parents will have the opportunity to review them and decide for themselves whether they are appropriate for their children.
Yet as mistaken as these restrictions are, the most lamentable part of your policy is the decision not to buy future titles in the Potter series because of your feeling that "controversial" books have no place in the public schools. In 1998, Judge Stephen Reinhardt of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit pointed out the danger of removing a book from the schools simply because it is controversial. In Monteiro v. Tempe High School, a parent had challenged the inclusion of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn on a mandatory high school reading list, claiming that the book's depiction of blacks was offensive. In his opinion, Judge Reinhardt asked what literary works would remain in the schools if every group could suppress the books it found objectionable:
White plaintiffs could seek to remove books by Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, and other prominent Black authors on the ground that they portray Caucasians in a derogatory fashion; Jews might try to impose civil liability for the teachings of Shakespeare and of more modern English poets where writings exhibit a similar anti-Semitic strain. Female students could attempt to make a case for damages for the assignment of some of the works of Tennessee Williams, Hemingway, or Freud, and male students for the writings of Andrea Dworkin or Margaret Atwood.
Removing works of unquestioned literary merit impoverishes our elementary schools no less than our high schools.
ABFFE supports the right of parents to ask that their children be excused from classroom readings of the Potter books. However, we believe that banning their use in the classroom and the library violates the spirit of the First Amendment and is a serious disservice to the children of the Zeeland Public Schools.
We urge you to rescind your November 22 memo.
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Copyright © 2001 American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression