Illinois High School Bans Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

by Melissa Ragsdale

On October 28th, the Kids’ Right to Read Project released a letter protesting the banning of Jonathan Safron Foer’s novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close from Mattoon High School in Illinois, citing both legal and moral indictments against the ban. The letter is signed by Svetlana Mintcheva (National Coalition Against Censorship), Chris Finan (American Booksellers for Free Expression), Judy Platt (Association of American Publishers), and Charles Brownstein (Comic Book Legal Defense Fund).

This September, just days before Banned Books Week, Mattoon High School removed Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close from its 11th Grade Honors English curriculum in response to parent complaints that that the book contains “several passages that were ‘extremely’ vulgar detailing sexual acts.” Even more troubling, the school went on to in-state a policy wherein parents are notified and given the option to opt their student out of assigned books that contain “adult content.”

“The problem wasn’t necessarily the book or the material,” said MHS principal Michelle Sinclair. “The problem was that we did not provide parents with an opportunity to opt out.”

In their letter, the Kids’ Right to Read Project directly condemns this opt-out policy, saying that “flagging books for ‘adult content’ creates the wrong impression that a book is somehow dangerous and damaging. Complaining parents should base their objections on the book as a whole and not be invited — by the very teachers who considered the book to be educationally valuable — to focus on the ‘adult’ or ‘objectionable’ lines it may contain.”

They go on to explain that the ban of Safron Foer’s book is detrimental on ethical, educational, and literary grounds — and it is also illegal:

Removing a book with recognized literary and pedagogical merit — one that has been taught for several years and is listed on the Mattoon Community District #2’s curriculum list — simply because some disapprove of it not only disserves the educational interests of students but also raises serious constitutional concerns. Government officials, including public school administrators, may not prohibit “the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.” Texas v. Johnson (1989); see also Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District No. 26 v. Pico (1982) (“local school boards may not remove books simply because they dislike the ideas contained in these books.” Indeed, removing material in response to objections to content or ideas may make a school district vulnerable to legal challenge. Compare Monteiro v. Tempe Union High School District (9th Cir. 1998) — recognizing the First Amendment right of students to read books selected for their “legitimate educational value” even if offensive to some parents and students — with Pratt v. Independent School Dist. No. 831 (8th Cir. 1982) and Case v. Unified School Dist. No 233 (D. Kan. 1995), in which it was stated that the First Amendment was violated by removing material because of hostility to content and message.

Despite rising awareness, book banning is unfortunately not a phenomenon limited to Mattoon High School. The American Library Association reports that 11, 300 books have been challenged since 1982, and in 2014 alone, 311 challenges were reported to the Office of Intellectual Freedom. Organizations such as the National Coalition Against Censorship continue to work towards the promotion of free speech nation-wide.