Authors Guild Demands Police Organization Cease Pressure on School About Reading List

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The Authors Guild releases a letter sent to the president of a South Carolina police association: ‘Attempts at censorship by law enforcement organizations cannot be tolerated in a democracy.’

Image – iStockphoto: Avosb

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

‘An Improper Attempt at Censorship’
In a strongly worded letter to the Fraternal Order of Police Tri-County Lodge #3 in South Carolina, the Authors Guild today (July 13) is demanding that the organizing stop “interfering in the reading selections of a high school in suburban Charleston.”

Publishing Perspectives readers are familiar with this case from our reporting earlier this month on how the police organization president, John Blackmon is calling for an English-class summer reading list to drop The Hate U Give (HarperCollins, 2017) by Angie Thomas and All American Boys (Simon & Schuster, 2015) by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely.

Both books have stories that include police brutality and racism as themes, and both are among the most highly acclaimed bestsellers in their sector of recent years. Blackmon’s complaint about the books—two of four titles from which students of Wando High Schoo’s English 1 class in Mount Pleasant are to choose and read one.

In the guild’s open letter to the police group, executive director Mary Rasenberger writes, “Attempts at censorship by law enforcement organizations cannot be tolerated in a democracy. Educators must be free to choose books on any and all subjects for their students’ reading.”

Mary Rasenberger. Image: Beowulf Sheehan

The letter, sent to Blackmon at the police organization released to news media, adds the weight of the United States’ largest advocacy organization for professional writers, with the guild’s membership now standing above 9,000.

Rasenberger writes to Blackmon, “This interference—which is clearly based on the content of the books in question—must stop.

“It is a blatant violation of students’ first amendment rights and an improper attempt at censorship by law-enforcement officials.

“It is a fundamental principle of democracy that police have no proper role in deciding what books should or should not be read. We have already co-signed a letter to the principal of Wando High School to urge the school to abide by its own internal processes, and we ask the Fraternal Order of Police to cease its efforts to influence that process.”

‘What You Expect in a Police State’

In an earlier letter dated June 21, the guild has joined five other prominent organizations in offering support to the school’s principal, Sherry Eppelsheimer.

“It is a fundamental principle of democracy that police have no proper role in deciding what books should or should not be read.”Mary Rasenberger, Authors Guild

That letter urges Eppelsheimer to rely on the school district’s process of review in such situations, and advises, “We urge you to retain both books on the Wando High School reading list for their educational merits.”

In that message, the guild is a co-signer with the National Coalition Against Censorship, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, the American Booksellers for Free Expression, PEN America, and the National Council for Teachers of English.

The six organizations’ message to Wando High School’s Eppelsheimer says, in part, “The First Amendment protects students’ rights to freely think, read and inquire; public school officials risk violating these rights when they restrict access to literature solely on the basis of viewpoint rather than for legitimate pedagogical reasons [per] Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, 484 U.S. 260, 261 (1988).

“Removing books that have been selected for their educational value solely because the ideas expressed in them conflict with some parents’ political or moral beliefs would improperly allow parents to dominate the public education process with their opinions.”

Referring to the subject matter of the two books, the joint letter says, “While not every student may feel prepared to engage such issues, no single parent—or administrator, community member, or police association—should have the ability to deprive all Wando High School students of the opportunity to do so.

“Rather than restrict your reading list, we urge you to instead encourage your students to read diverse viewpoints and engage them in critical discussion about social issues. In reconsidering these books, we ask that your review committee focus on their educational value as a whole and take into account the fact that the summer reading list already offers alternative readings for those students whose parents may object to the two books under consideration.”

As quoted in a statement posted to the Authors Guild site today, Rasenberger says, “Local police inserting themselves into pedagogical choices is what you expect in a police state. The very thought of it makes me shudder.”

That statement includes a copy of the guild’s letter to the Fraternal Order of Police’s Blackmon.

The Books the Fraternal Order Objects To

All American Boys was given the 2016 Coretta Scott King Author Honor and Walter Dean Myers Award for children’s literature. School Library Journal named the book “a must-have for all collections,” and the critics there wrote, “Reynolds and Kiely’s collaborative effort deftly explores the aftermath of police brutality, addressing the fear, confusion, and anger that affects entire communities.

“Diverse perspectives are presented in a manner that feels organic to the narrative, further emphasizing the tension created when privilege and racism cannot be ignored.”

And Thomas’s The Hate U Give—in which a 16-year-old sees her childhood best friend fatally shot by a police officer—has been showered with accolades, including a longlisting for the National Book Award, the Coretta Scott King Author Honor, the William C. Morris Award, the Printz Honor. At this writing, it’s spent 69 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list for Young Adult Hardcover books.

At this writing, it stands at No. 1 and 2 in the Amazon Kindle Store for Teen & YA literature and fiction categories of violence and emotions and feelings, respectively, and at No. 1 in Teen & YA literature in the African-American-sub category.


More from Publishing Perspectives about this situation is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He is also co-owner and editor with Jane Friedman of The Hot Sheet, the newsletter for trade and indie authors. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook, at London's The Bookseller. Anderson has also worked with CNN International, CNN.com, CNN USA, the Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and other media.

Comments

  1. This was not official government action – it was an action by the FOP – the Fraternal Order of Police. If government employees are not to have a say in the selection, then the teachers should not be able to draw up the list. In choosing one book, they are – by your definition – censoring others.

    Ridiculous, isn’t it?

    I looked over the lists. They were repetitive (authors appearing on more than one list), narrow in theme (We suck, all others are – Yay! – Great!). The books will NOT appeal to more than a narrow segment of the population – nothing about/by Hispanic, despite the area having more than a few Spanish-speaking peoples, nothing from an Asian author, only one book with a sympathetic/non-hateful White person – Hillbilly Elegy (good choice).

    Summer reading is unguided. Wouldn’t it be better to use troubling themes/divisive topics during the school year, when a teacher could help guide the reading and discussion appropriately?

    Summer reading should be:
    – Books that the kids WANT to read
    – Books that are FUN to read
    – Books including non-fiction, as well (in general, boys like, and read, non-fiction more than fiction). How about The Martian? Thomas Wolfe’s The Right Stuff? Free choice of a variety of biographies (from perhaps a list of 10)?

    If a kid started out somewhat depressed, the books on these lists would, I think, make him suicidal.

    1. Right On! The FOP is a Fraternal Order which functions as a Union and thus represents Officers in some employment/Legal matters. Thus they have every right to express their opinion. It is not censorship. I bet you the so-called educators complaining have problems with Police in general.

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