Speak - Censorship

-Taken from Laurie Halse Anderson's blog


Challenges to SPEAK

I am shocked whenever anyone challenges SPEAK. This is a story about the emotional trauma suffered by a teen after a sexual assault. Throughout the entire book, she struggles with her pain, and tries to find the courage to speak up about what happened so she can get some help.

Isn’t that what we want our kids to do – reach out to us?

Some people in America get all weird whenever anything that is remotely sexual in nature comes up for discussion.


1 in 6 American women will be the victims of a completed or attempted rape in her lifetime.

National Institute of Justice & Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. Prevalence, Incidence and Consequences of Violence Against Women Survey. 1998.)

44% of those rape victims are under age 18.

(U.S. Department of Justice. 2004 National Crime Victimization Survey. 2004.)

17.7 million American women have been victims of attempted or completed rape.

(National Institute of Justice & Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. Prevalence, Incidence and Consequences of Violence Against Women Survey. 1998.)

Victims of sexual assault are: 3 times more likely to suffer from depression.

  • 6 times more likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
  • 13 times more likely to abuse alcohol.
  • 26 times more likely to abuse drugs.
  • 4 times more likely to contemplate suicide.

(World Health Organization. 2002.)

These statistics and more can be found on RAINN’s website. RAINN is the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, America’s largest anti-sexual assault organization. Visit their site for more information – they have everything and anything you need to know about how much sexual assault and abuse is suffered by Americans, who commits these crimes, and what we can do to stop it.

Some people are uncomfortable talking about rape. It makes them feel awkward or powerless, or ashamed. They often can’t put their feelings about it into words. They find it easier to avoid the discussion. These are the kinds of people who try to remove SPEAK from the classroom.

When they do that, I become angry.

Education is supposed to prepare children for the world. While it would be nice to pretend that sexual assault does not exist, a quick glance at the statistics proves otherwise. Teenagers know that sexuality exists, they know what rape is, and way too many of them have suffered it. Rape is discussed on the front page of newspapers. It is the topic of movies. Rape survivors speak out publicly about their attacks. Avoiding it by removing a book that deals with the subject in a thoughtful, literary way is ridiculous and harmful.

Weighing In – by Pat Scales

reprinted with permission from Booklist Online

If you had asked me a year ago what bombs, lips, and martini glasses have in common, I would have answered, “A fraternity party.” Now I have a different answer. It’s called Common Sense Media. This not-for-profit Web-based organization is in the business of using a “rating” system to review all types of media that target children, but their “ratings” of books are especially disingenuous. They claim that they want to keep parents informed. Informed about what? What their children should read or what they shouldn’t read?

This isn’t the first time that an organization has used the Worldwide Web to influence parental opinions about children’s literature. Parents against Bad Books in Schools and a number of right-wing groups have been at work for years trading “forbidden” lists of children’s books. It’s never been clear who decides what titles make the lists. Now, Common Sense Media joins the long list of organizations that think they know what is best for children. The frightening part about this group is that they have a marketing strategy to convince parents and even teachers and librarians that “rating” materials is a “good” thing. But good turns to bad when reviewers aren’t really reviewers, and the focus is on what to watch out for.

Common Sense Media claims that it is about “media sanity, not censorship,” but after a long meeting with their editor in chief, I remain puzzled about how they define “media sanity.” As a company, it is free to do what it pleases, but the belief that “media has truly become the ‘other parent’” and its approach to media guidance display great disrespect for children and their families, not to mention the disdain it demonstrates to librarians who are trained to provide reading guidance to families.

Children deserve to be challenged intellectually, and they deserve to be the judge of the books that suit them. Most children will reject books they aren’t ready for, and they don’t need adults to help them with that decision. Common Sense Media assumes that all parents want to police what their kids are reading, and they use the following emoticons as warnings: bombs for violence, lips for sex, #! for language, $ for consumerism, and martini glasses for drinking, drugs, and smoking

In addition to rating books in these five categories, the site also decides whether books have any educational value and redeeming role models. Finally, they give titles an overall “on,” “off,” or “iffy” rating. For example, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, by Jacqueline Kelly, a 2010 Newbery Honor Book, is rated “on” for ages 12 and up. My bet is that there are plenty of 9-year-olds waiting in line for the book. It gets one bomb for violence because of a description of a Civil War battle and reportage of a servant who is pitchforked to death; a lip because Calpurnia’s older brother is courting and animals on the farm mate; one #! because Calpurnia’s grandfather curses; and two martini glasses because her grandfather drinks whiskey and port daily. There are further warnings under “What Parents Need to Know.” What Common Sense Media doesn’t tell you is that 11-year-old Calpurnia is a spunky kid who would rather be collecting scientific specimens with her grandfather than learning to become a housewife.

Common Sense Media clearly doesn’t know how to deal with young-adult readers. Filter the site by “iffy” books and ages 15–up, and you are left holding frowning faces, bombs, lips, “#!,” and martini glasses. Looking for Alaska, by John Green, winner of the 2006 Michael L. Printz Award, is rated “iffy” for ages 15–18. Booklist graded this book at grades 9–12, and even the “Average Rating” by kids, parents, and educators on the Common Sense site recommends Green’s book for ages 12–up. Regardless of what these readers say, the Common Sense Media reviewer warns, “Parents need to know that this book hits all the controversial pulse points: drinking, (not graphic) sex, bad language, and smoking, including marijuana smoking.”

In May 2010, the National Coalition against Censorship, American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, National Council of Teachers of English, Association of American Publishers, Pen American Center, International Reading Association, American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, Authors Guild, and Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators sent a joint letter to the editor in chief and the CEO of Common Sense Media that outlined the following concerns with the company’s rating system: (1) the implication that certain kinds of content are inherently problematic; (2) the negative attitude toward books; and (3) the potential that the ratings will be used to remove valuable literature from schools and libraries. A meeting was held with the editor in chief, and questions were raised about why books such as Markus Zusak’s Book Thief and Annika Thor’s Faraway Island, both set during the Holocaust, and Laurie Halse Anderson’s Chains, set during the American Revolution, weren’t given any “educational value.” The editor in chief had no clear answers, but those books have now been awarded “educational value” on Common Sense Media’s site. It is clear to the nine organizations that are working hard to protect children and young adult’s freedom to read that Common Sense Media is a moving target, and their piecemeal response to such questions won’t fix what is at heart a misguided and dangerous concept.

While Common Sense Media isn’t censoring anything, it is providing a tool for censors. There is already a documented case in the Midwest where a book was removed from a school library based solely on a Common Sense review. Common Sense Media allows users to filter books by “on,” “off,” and “iffy” ratings. And reviewers are instructed to point out anything “controversial.” Such warnings encourage site browsers to take things out of context instead of looking at books as a whole.

Bombs, lips, and martini glasses! Indeed, let them be a warning. We must be proactive in helping parents understand that rating books is dangerous. Otherwise, more censorship bombs are sure to explode.

A former school librarian, Pat Scales is a member of the National Coalition against Censorship Council of Advisors.

Support from the Kid’s Right to Read Project

The Kids’ Right to Read Project, a division of the National Coalition Against Censorship, sent this letter to a school district where SPEAK was challenged. They sum up my thoughts on the subject perfectly.

Board of Trustees
Temecula Valley Unified School District
31350 Rancho Vista Road
Temecula, CA 92592

September 21, 2009

Dear Ms. Rutz-Robbins, Mr. Pulsipher and Members of the Board,

We write to oppose efforts to remove Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson from English classes at Temecula Valley High School. We understand that the Director of Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment has received one parent’s objections to “smutty” and “pornographic” content.

School officials are bound by constitutional considerations, including a duty not to give in to pressure to suppress unpopular ideas or controversial language. The Supreme Court has cautioned that, "[l]ocal school boards may not remove books from library shelves simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books and seek by their removal to ‘prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion.’" Board of Education v. Pico, 457 U.S. 853, 872 (1982)(plurality opinion).

Speak is a stunning story about teenage outcasts of our society who often fall through the cracks. A New York Times bestseller, it has received wide acclaim, including as a National Book Award Finalist. It is precisely this kind of literature that enlarges students’ knowledge of the world and prepares them for college and adult life. Books should always be evaluated as a whole, and not reduced to isolated passages that some may find objectionable. Viewed as a whole work, this book is eminently appropriate for high school students.

The task of selecting school materials properly belongs to professional librarians and educators. Parents may be equipped to make choices for their own children, but, no matter how well-intentioned, they simply are not equipped to make decisions for others. Without questioning the sincerity of the parent who objects to the book, her views are not shared by all, and she has no right to impose those views on others or to demand that the curriculum reflect her personal preferences. Furthermore, the practical effect of acceding to any request to restrict access to materials will be to invite others to demand changes to reflect their beliefs and to leave school officials vulnerable to multiple, possibly conflicting, demands.

We strongly urge you to keep Speak in the classroom at Temecula Valley High School. Individual freedom, democracy, and a good education all depend on protecting free speech and the right to read, inquire, question, and think for ourselves.


Joan Bertin
Executive Director
National Coalition Against Censorship

Chris Finan
American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression

“Censorship reflects a society’s lack of confidence in itself. It is a hallmark of an authoritarian regime . . . ”

—Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, dissenting Ginzberg v. United States, 383 U.S. 463 (1966)