(Ed's note: The following letter was sent to the president of the board of education and is reprinted here at the writer's request.)
We have received several phone calls from Port Washington residents who attended your Sept. 19 school board meeting and are concerned about the board's vote to reject the use of Julia Alvarez's In the Time of the Butterflies, approved by the administration for use as a textbook in the 10th grade English curriculum. We understand that after much discussion the board decided to return the book for re-evaluation to the teacher who recommended it and to the administrators. A final vote will be taken at your October board meeting.
While we recognize that a school board has authority to determine the general subject matter of a curriculum, we are concerned that you are now micro-managing the professionals whose job it is to choose course materials. In any case, professional literary journals rate the book an outstanding choice for high school students, a gripping story of three sisters active in the underground resistance movement opposing the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo. In fact, the book is an American Library Association Notable Book and a 1995 National Book Critics Circle Award nominee.
The sticking point seems to be a crude diagram of a homemade bomb, p. 144, that in context is appropriate to the story of a revolutionary movement organizing to overthrow an oppressive dictator, reminiscent of the American colonists organizing against King George. In fact, though arms were collected in the book, they were never used.
We understand that a board member raised the issue of the diagram in the context of Columbine, suggesting that a drawing of this nature might trigger violence. If that is your concern, please be aware that several years ago, we successfully challenged a county law banning the sale to minors of trading cards depicting "heinous crimes or criminals." The rationale for the law was that juvenile crime was fed by the violence depicted in literature and the arts, a contention the federal court properly rejected.
While that case involved trading cards and this issue involves school texts, the principle is the same: history and literature are replete with descriptions of violence but no court has ever held a book responsible for a crime. Nor was the violence spawned by the Columbine students ever associated with a book. Even so, to sustain your objection to Butterflies, you would have to screen other books in your curricula and libraries for potentially provocative material. As Oliver Wendell Holmes said, "Every idea is an incitement."
You should know in the last year and a half since Columbine, we have received many calls from parents protesting the harsh punishments imposed on their children for engaging in activities that would never have raised an eyebrow before Columbine but are now suddenly suspect. While we trust you would never suspend a student for a creative writing story involving violence, that will give you an idea of how Columbine has banished common sense.
We urge you to exercise perspective and restraint in judging the value of In the Time of the Butterflies. To substitute another novel in this situation would be self-censorship, a concession to panic and a disservice to the students and the community.
We look forward to hearing from you soon.
LI Coalition Against Censorship