Always Running to high school students?
By David Dericco
Windsor High School, Grade 12
This essay won first prize in the American Civil Liberties Union's high school student essay contest, which asked young writers in Sonoma County to answer the question "Should teachers be allowed to assign controversial books such as Always Running to high school students?" The winning writer, David Dericco, will be awarded a $500 college scholarship prize at an ACLU banquet on Saturday, Feb. 20. No essays supporting a ban on the book were received, according to the ACLU.
THE FIRST Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America guarantees its citizens the right to receive information, regardless of how controversial the content. There is nothing written in this famous document that would exclude high school students from receiving the same benefits. School districts are in error when they ban books because of parental complaints. Schools are then hesitant to assign books with themes, words, or characters that could possibly offend any number of ethnic groups or organizations. Free informed choice of curriculum is destroyed. School districts, ever wary of lawsuits, need to realize that they have a duty to protect students from racial or sexual harassment by their peers; but to ban materials based on their controversial content is an obstruction of one's civil rights, as guaranteed by the First Amendment.
The Santa Rosa Board of Education is using intimidation tactics to keep Always Running, by Luis J. Rodriguez, out of the school curriculum. Very few teachers will come forward to prove Always Running is "necessary" as assigned reading. To overrule its own committee's decision based on one complaint shows the vulnerability of our hold on freedom of the press. If by the high school years a student is not capable of analyzing the merit of a writing, then the school has not prepared the student.
It is ironic that the Santa Rosa Board of Education has been discussing the implementation of stricter graduation requirements in order to prepare students for adulthood, but by barring certain literature, it deems these same students incapable of judging the validity of real-life situations. Poverty, racism, and police brutality are a fact of life, not issues that need to be kept from young adults. How will these students be prepared to cope with serious situations if they are denied access to information? Many Santa Rosa high school students, as well as students all across the nation, are already dealing with these issues on a daily basis. They need information, not censorship.
Over the years, numerous books have been challenged as being racially explicit and unsuitable for core reading requirements. Parents have claimed racial discrimination occurred because of the inflammatory content of the mandatory reading materials. Banning books is not a recent occurrence. This threat to one's freedom of speech and press has been in jeopardy for hundreds of years. Some books, such as the Bible, regularly come under attack as being obscene and pornographic. Many banned books are classics: The Odyssey, Of Mice and Men, Ulysses, The Grapes of Wrath, Catcher in the Rye, and Huckleberry Finn, just to name a few because the list is very long. Book banning occurs under various guises: political, social, and religious and usually as the result of the protest by one or two persons or as a group effort.
Almost any book could offend someone. Any Western book has readily relied on prejudice and hate to create a story. Shakespeare frequently included sexual connotations in his writings. A science fiction book could be labeled as the babblings of a madman. Any history is a chronicle of war, misery, death, challenge, and violence. It sometimes follows the path of deceit, as most history was written by the victors. Citizens who protest a book's appropriateness to be offered in school libraries have the same rights declared under the First Amendment: freedom of speech and press. Let them speak out and present or defend their opinion, but let reason prevail. No person or group has the right to censure or limit the civil liberties of the majority. If free choice of materials is denied, knowledge and reason are limited.
A Virginia judge reinforced this edict in a recent landmark decision. U.S. Judge Leonie M. Brinkema ruled that a Virginia library violated the constitutional rights of free speech when it used software to screen out explicit material on the Internet.
The protection of the right to receive information is one that affects every person today, young or old. If we, as a society, are to correct abuses, violence, and prejudice, we must be informed. High school students are the leaders of tomorrow, and tomorrow is a few short years away.
An intelligent society can only hope to keep an open mind when confronted with adverse messages in literature. We cannot bend to threats of censorship or burning of any human thought. Each individual's thoughts merit the deliberation by many. A point of view which is not one's own cannot be experienced if not presented. Yes, teachers should be allowed to assign controversial books like Always Running to high school students.
From the February 4-10, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.
© Metro Publishing Inc.