Archive for the ‘censorship’ Tag

Invoking father’s privilege: saying no to violent movies

by Keith Yancy

Well, this is different, huh? 

Me, the guy who has recently crowed about academic freedom and griped about censorship and book banning has refused to allow his nine- and 12-year-old daughters from seeing The Dark Knight with friends this past weekend.

And no, I don’t see the inconsistency here, though I needed to think about it for a moment.

That’s because these situations, in my mind, are very different.  My 16-year-old daughter, who had one book taken from her (and another almost taken) in her ADVANCED PLACEMENT, college-level literature class, was ready for the material.  My wife and I gave her permission to take the class, and read a few books considered controversial, because we knew she could handle it.

And, in the same way, I’m sure my nine- and 12-year-old girls are NOT ready to see Harvey Dent’s face half seared off, or The Joker shooting and stabbing people.  While I’m not quite sure what the movie’s rating is (I’m guessing PG-13), I AM sure that there are adult themes and sufficient violence in The Dark Knight to give my girls sleepless nights from now until July.  If other parents are okay with letting their kids watch The Dark Knight, so be it — that’s their decision as parents, and while I disagree with it, it remains their decision, not mine.

As you’d expect, my younger daughters seemed pretty annoyed at Dad’s flat refusal, handed down via a phone call from their friends’ house.  (I was pleased, at least, that they knew enough to call.  I suspect my 9-year-old was very nervous about watching “a scary movie,” and provided the necessary element of conscience.)  My 12-year-old was, judging by the text message(s) I received, disappointed.  But, as my own father would say, “too bad.”  Each kid is different, and while my 16-year-old is mature enough to discern fact from fiction, under the instruction of an educated, professional literature teacher, four girls in a suburban basement watching violent clown-mask-wearing bank robbers shooting people isn’t even close to the same thing. 

That’s why, even during the great censorship fight we recently fought at our local high school, I was always careful to remind people that it was an opt-in, college-level class; only students who were deemed “ready” by both parents and instructors were granted permission to enroll.  I would not necessarily assign the same books to younger, less-emotionally prepared kids, despite the books’ literary value. 

My younger daughters know little of this — they just knew that there was a movie about Batman on, and wanted to watch it.  And, had I granted my permission, they would have.  But I didn’t.  Because I know what can happen when kids see such images when they aren’t prepared for them.

When I was about 7-8 years old, I asked my parents if I could go with some neighborhood friends to see a generally lousy movie called Tommy (based on The Who’s “rock opera” album).  At the time, my parents were clearly not big Who fans, and knew nothing about the film, so they let me go.

Big mistake, though there was no permanent damage.

I can still remember — over 35 years later — images from that movie.   These images probably wouldn’t be considered that graphic by today’s standards, but they burned a permanent place in my seven-year-old memory.  I can still recall Tommy’s father being killed by his mom’s lover, and her head later being caved in by a wrecking ball while her lover/husband gets stabbed by crazy fans.  And keep this in mind: I have never seen the movie since that single viewing.  I can still remember how upset I was at the adult themes and graphic violence, none of which I was ready or prepared to see. 

Of course, the reason I wasn’t ready to see these images was because my parents did such a good job of protecting me from them, before and after this movie.  They just never realized that the movie included such adult content, and it only took one oversight for this to happen.  No long-term harm done, but it sure did upset a certain 7-year-old boy for quite a while during his adolescence.

And I’m going to do my best to shield my kids from such things, also.  They have plenty of time to witness such Hollywood-inspired dreck when they’re older and ready for it, but for now, I want violence to stay abstract and distant, not graphic and all-too realistic. 

That’s my job as a father — to decide when my kids are ready for adult themes.  And yeah… I get pretty angry when my parental decisions aren’t respected, whether they’re to grant permission or withhold it. 

So… there’s really no inconsistency here at all.  Not in my mind, anyway.

Until next time… : |


Academic Freedom 2, Censorship 0; On to the Second Round.

by Keith Yancy

One day after the second of two challenged books was successfully restored to the curriculum makes me feel like an underdog prize fighter who just won the first round of a boxing match.  It’s a good feeling, but one tempered by the knowledge that our opponent underestimated us, and is now realizing that this is going to take more strength and effort than they expected.  The bell will soon ring, and potentially many more rounds await.

But, as the Bible notes so eloquently, there’s a time for everything, and the time for feeling good about this victory is now. 

We took a few punches (several below the belt), but we landed more than we took.  What started as a small group of outraged parents quickly grew into a significant group of activists, well over 200 strong, who — without political backing or money — made their presence known and felt in the community.   The group that was created, Supporters of Academic Integrity in Plymouth-Canton, is as diverse as the thousands of kids who attend our schools: young and old, white and blue collar, liberal and conservative, people of all religions, colors and creeds.  A group united as citizens with a common cause — to preserve the academic integrity of our schools and school curricula, without the influence of political forces and agendas.  Notably, a group led by intelligent, motivated and talented people who have the courage of their convictions and the resolve to fight for them.

As the first round transpired, we learned from our opponent, who clearly knows their way around the boxing ring.  They had a Facebook page, so we created one.  They had several web sites, so we created one — a better one, in my opinion (  They rallied supporters to board meetings, so we came too.  When they started leaning on politicians and writing local newspapers, we responded, then started taking the fight to them by writing our own.  When we noticed that they strategically placed themselves in view of the public access cameras at one meeting, the next meeting found our supporters sitting in many of those same seats.

But we also brought some fighting techniques that our opponents didn’t.  Better arguments, for sure.  We swatted away weak jabs like Lexile scoring, alarmist charges of pornography, and silly leaps of logic like connecting literature to inappropriate dancing and rumors of teenage sex in bathrooms.  While our supporters brought in political cronies, out-of-towners and even a local pastor to “defend our children,” we brought in parents, academic leaders (who knew that there WAS a process in place for reviewing literature), current students, and successful, articulate former students who actually read the books to defend our position.  In exchange after exchange, we landed shots while our opponents swung wildly, bobbing and weaving from point to point in search of a knockout punch that never came.

And, hopefully, we trained better before the fight.  It’s a lot easier to fight for books and academic freedom when you a) have read the books (!), b) have a student, former student, or future student in the class, c) respect and value the excellent teachers in our district, and d) value your rights as a parent enough to fight back.  For too long — much, much too long, I suspect — our opponents have assumed they were simply fighting another indifferent, uninspired “tomato can,” one whom they could knock out before their opponent could even come out of the corner or raise their gloves.  And yes, they even landed the first two or three punches in this fight, but we didn’t fall down, our knees didn’t buckle, and our will didn’t crumble.  We fought back.

Unfortunately, we even had to battle a “referee” — our local school board and our interim superintendent — who seemed stupefied by the fact that they actually had a fight on their hands this time.  When our opponent successfully convinced the interim superintendent to remove Waterland, he seemed stunned that we objected.  When they distributed hate literature against school policy at board meetings, the board seemed oblivious to their own policies, and shockingly indifferent to just how offensive the materials were (it took another incident of hate literature distribution before they finally took action).  They collectively broke the law by limiting public comment, and were compelled to issue a public apology and a “make up session” to address the error.  Our interim superintendent (and yes, I refuse to drop the “interim” from his title) displayed either profound naiveté or his true opinions when he allowed himself to be set up by a local conservative talk show pundit on the radio.  And when the ref finally woke up and started to do their jobs, it took almost two months before one of them — Barry Simescu — had enough courage to stand up publicly and support the teachers involved.  I can’t decide if that collective failure is pathetic or outright shameful.

Unfortunately, however, this fight doesn’t look like a one-rounder. 

Our opponent isn’t used to losing a round, much less actually trading punches with an opponent.  While they’ve made many claims over the past two months, the only one that I am willing to believe at face value is their claim that “they aren’t going away.”  I believe you.  And so does everyone else.

On a personal level, I’ve gained a few battle scars too.  I’m marked by a deep, abiding mistrust in local politics and politicians, many of whom have no crisis of conscience when obfuscating facts, spreading baseless accusations, or assuming the collective ignorance of the people they represent.  I’ve been bruised by the fact that I can no longer blithely assume that local decisions — whether they be about schools or anything else — are always done in the best interests of the majority of citizens.  And I’ve had my eyes opened by the fact that one politically minded parent can shamelessly relegate local high school kids, and an entire school district, to a bargaining chip in their quest for political power. 

I’ll be watching carefully in the rounds to come.  Watching to see if our interim superintendent will allow himself to be as easily manipulated in the future by the political forces that bray the loudest.  Watching to see if any actual evidence is EVER offered up to support the claims of sex in the bathrooms and hallways in our local high schools, and watching to see if our local state representative, Kurt Heise, will retract his statements made in a voter breakfast yesterday regarding these local “legends.”

I’ll also take stock of the effects of this first round have had on me, too.  I’ve been called many, many things in my life, but for the first time (and to my considerable amusement), I have been called a “bleeding heart liberal.”  After years — decades, actually — of masquerading as a milquetoast conservative, I’m suddenly finding myself on the other side of the always-moving line between liberalism and conservatism.  I will continue to support (and greatly admire) the leaders of the Supporters of Academic Integrity in Plymouth-Canton, whose generous gifts of time and talents have so greatly eclipsed my own.  And I’ve developed a renewed appreciation for those among us who enjoy policy and procedural debates ( a vital asset in such matters as these), for which I have neither the aptitude nor the patience. 

Round 1 is over.  But I’m sure there will be more rounds to come.  And the only way to ultimately win this fight is through perseverance, vigilance and watchfulness; as Calvin Coolidge once observed, “determination and perseverance alone are omnipotent.”  I don’t believe this fight will be won or lost by knockout, but with a rapidly growing group of motivated citizens, I love our chances.  In the meantime, be wary of those who would “protect” you from ideas, differences, or who defer to an idealized past.  Be skeptical of those who sell alternatives without full disclosure, without research, without results.  And be on guard for those who propose to “fight for you” without actually asking you for your approval to do so.

Bring on the next round, if you must.  We’re in it to win it.

Until next time… 🙂

What I Learned About “Common Sense” at the Local School Board Meeting

by Keith Yancy

NOTE: I’ve had a surprising number of people ask me for an update on the book ban efforts in my daughter’s local high school.  One book (Beloved) has been re-instated, the other (Waterland) is “in review.”  In the interim, there have been a lot of school board meetings, editorials, radio interviews, etc.  Here’s my most recent observations.

After spending the first 44 years of my life having never attended a local school board meeting, I’ve now attended two.  And let me tell you something – they’re more interesting than you might expect.  At least, they are in my town.


Well, if you’ve read any of my blogs lately, you know about the whole “book ban issue” (as some call it) vs. the “process and parental rights issue” (as others call it).  I’ve learned quite a bit at these two meetings, especially the last one, which was held solely to hear citizen complaints about the whole affair.  After I attended this latest meeting, I intentionally didn’t want to write about it until I had let a day or two pass, to make sure I was writing with reason and logic, rather than emotion and anger.

Well, that time is up.  Over the past few days, a few observations gradually came into focus.

  • I was generally impressed with the civility and behavior of everyone in attendance.  The air was definitely charged, as people with very, very different (and strong) opinions were together in a very small room.  But, other than one man acting like a seventh-grader whispering and snickering nearby, people generally behaved themselves.  That was good to see.
  • Both sides had some very good speakers, and both sides argued persuasively.  There was a balance between the “pro-book” and “anti-book” people, and typically, the order of those who spoke alternated between the two points of view.  And – lest you mistake me for an ideologue – I was impressed with several speakers from each side.  Consider:
    1. An elderly gentleman (and a veteran) who was articulate and concerned about the decline in morality found in today’s schools, and his belief that these books play a role in that decline. 
    2. Numerous students and former students, who argued with intelligence and eloquence about the positive impact these literary works had in their lives and education.
    3. A pastor of a local church, who expressed his concern about the books’ content in the hands of 16-17 year olds.
    4. A former head of the English department at the high school, who confirmed not only that there WAS a process in place for vetting these books, but that the teachers were highly qualified to teach them.
    5. The son of a local political “insider,” who – after his mother made a complete fool of herself reading “naughty passages” from the books in a previous board meeting – spoke with civility, and offered an appeal for everyone to find common ground.  Ironically, the son seemed far more mature and authentic than his mother, and showed some courage addressing the audience.
    6. Finally, and – in my opinion, the most powerful speaker of all – a young African-American woman, who explained just how powerful and important Beloved was to her and her understanding of slavery.  Everyone, on both sides, was absolutely silent as she spoke, and she showed as much grace, conviction, and quiet strength as I have ever personally witnessed.  I am not easily moved… but I was after she spoke.
  • Most disturbingly, what I learned is that I’ve apparently never understood what “common sense” meant.  The phrase was used by the same parent who began this entire affair, whom I won’t name here, as he addressed the board.  It struck me that he so consciously said it, with emphasis, to describe his actions.  His obvious and repeated use of this phrase stuck in my mind, and I found myself reflecting on what “common sense” means to him. 
    So, I decided to review the organization and web site he’s affiliated with,, to better understand “common sense.”  Below is an “infographic” I created, using this website’s EXACT words as they were presented on 1/31/2012, as well as a few corrections:

  • After hearing this person use the term “common sense” at the meeting, and reviewing the web site he claims to be affiliated with, I can only conclude that I’ve misunderstood what the term means.  Apparently, according to this web site and the “group” responsible for it, “common sense” means the following:
    1. That, rather than being accountable for your decisions, it’s okay to make a choice, provide consent, then change your mind — and then demand that everyone else do the same. 
    2. That providing notice of “mature content,” in writing, well in advance of the class starting, isn’t really “full disclosure.” 
    3. That it’s okay to claim that there are no “options,” when there were alternative texts provided and alternative classes available. 
    4. That, by reading only a few sexually oriented lines from 250+ page book, you can accurately judge the entire book’s literary value… and take it away from 94 other students without their input or consent.
    5. That it’s perfectly acceptable to replace one banned book with another book that’s been on many “book ban” lists for years.
    6. That you can try to convince people that using Lexile scores to judge literary works is somehow more logical than judging great architecture by the weight of the building.  
    7. That, when your Lexile scoring argument fails, you can simply “bully your way to success” by rallying a local political party to try to convince others when your “arguments” failed to do so.
    8. That you can break school policy and rules by distributing propaganda on school property while, at the same time, demanding that everyone “follow the rules.”
    9. That reading an entire work of literature, in a college-prep classroom environment, with a professional educator, is no different from shouting a few “dirty” sentences, out of context, from that same book, on television — where any young child could hear it.  AND justifying doing so by claiming that it’s all due to your “concern for children.”
    10. That it’s perfectly fine to circumvent “process” and ignore the rights of other parents all while re-naming your attempt to ban books as a “process and parents’ rights issue.”
    11. That it’s okay to make vague, unsubstantiated claims of “dirty dancing” and “sex in the bathrooms” without having to prove of any of them.
    12. That, despite any causal evidence, it’s okay to link literary works with “dirty dancing.”
    13. That, when people don’t agree with your point of view, it’s alright to assume they just “aren’t aware.”
    14. That disrupting a class for AP Literature students is somehow “protecting” them, despite doing so without the permission or approval of other parents involved.
    15. That it’s more dangerous to read two paragraphs about sexual exploration than it is to watch the graphic violence and hear the profanity in a movie like Saving Private Ryan (which is shown in another high school class).
    16. That there’s no inconsistency in demanding an open, public process while privately submitting a — yes, here it is — “common sense solution” to the school board. 
    17. That the desire to remove books from the curriculum will begin and end with just two books, or just sexually oriented material, or just a literature class.
    18. And, the most disturbing definition of all… that it’s entirely acceptable to define and decide for other people in this country what their moral standards should be. 

I could go on, but I’m exhausted just thinking about all the new local meanings of “common sense” floating around town these days.  What’s clear, throughout this whole silly affair, is that the real values of this “Common Sense” organization can be summarized very simply: Feel completely comfortable defining and determining “morality” for other people, whether they ask you to do so or not.  Call in local political groups when you can’t produce a compelling or lucid argument.  And use a meaningless, feel-good term such as “common sense” as a repetitive, empty slogan to mask a larger agenda.


At home, after the school board meeting concluded, my high-school daughter brought me a permission slip from her school to sign.  I looked it over, reviewed the contents, asked a few questions (it was for an economics class), and prepared to sign my name.  At that exact moment, it struck me… would my signature – my consent – be respected in this class?  Or would my daughter’s education be again disrupted by local political forces that use our school system as a platform for public exposure?  Would my rights, and the rights of my daughter, be equal to others this time?  Or would they be tossed aside like last semester, held hostage by people who feel qualified to tell me what’s “acceptable” for my own child?

I would write the school board again, but since they never bothered to even acknowledge my previous letter, I’ve become skeptical that anyone’s really listening.  I hope that, if these political games actually succeed, the school board — and everyone else at the schools — like and accept all the “common sense” choices and selections that will be made for them in the future.  Because if there’s one thing I’m sure of, it’s this: they won’t stop with just two books.

Until next time… 😐

A Satirical Response from the Pornography Industry about Waterland

by Keith Yancy

I have to admit… I have a good (or, depending upon whether you like me personally or not, bad) habit of poking fun at serious issues.  I do this not because I take issues lightly (I submit my last four blog posts as evidence of this), but because I know from experience that laughter can do so much good for people — reducing anger, restoring perspective, and, in many cases, finding some common ground between strangers.  This blog was originally intended for humor, and while I sometimes talk about serious topics, I still try to keep the blog content upbeat whenever I can.

It was in this spirit that I wrote the following satirical letter below.  Not to make fun of any one person in particular, but simply to show how silly some accusations — particularly narrow-minded ones — can be.  The letter, including the organization from which it is from, is entirely fictional.  (For those who prefer smaller words, the letter below “isn’t real.”)


TO: PCCS School Board and Superintendent

FROM: Society for the Legitimacy of Approving Pornography (SLAP)

Dear Board Members:

Our organization, the Society for the Legitimacy of Approving Pornography (we like to call ourselves “SLAP” for short), is always on the lookout for new porn to endorse and promote.  As you know, the porn industry is booming, with our material in magazines, as well as on the internet, television, and even radio.  In other words, our “canon” is virtually everywhere.

We at SLAP were very excited to read in the news that there was new material for consideration as pornography in your locality.  After having reviewed Waterland, however, we’re afraid that, after a comprehensive review, we simply cannot endorse this as pornographic material.  This was very disappointing to us, but we felt it necessary to explain why this book was rejected in the event you wish to label more such books as “porn.”

1.  Our first impression was, unfortunately, that this book was pretty dismal as pornographic material.  To put it bluntly, most of our products don’t take 358 pages to, ahem, “tell the story.”  Our target audience typically is looking for content that’s a lot fewer pages than this, usually punctuated with a variety of color photographs.  Though we looked carefully, there were no pictures, diagrams, audio tracks, etc., of any kind in this book.  In fact, the picture on the cover was this:

In a word, HUH?  A kid poking a stick into a river?  Not sure if you’ve seen examples of our materials, but this not only doesn’t compete with the head-turning visuals found in today’s pornography, it’s a “sleeper” by almost any measure.  (NOTE: We apologize for the large, irritating “Booker Prize” stamp obscuring part of the image.  While we admit there could be something titillating or graphic behind the stamp, we can only conclude — based on what’s visible — that this isn’t very pornographic.)

2.  Once we got over Waterland‘s total lack of visual pornographic appeal, we immediately got to work to find all the “good parts,” at least from our perspective.  This was, again, a disappointing experience.   It takes almost 40 pages to even get a remark about anything relating to sex, and only at page 50 or so does it even approach our minimum standards for consideration as porn.  And yet, even then, there’s just not much to work with here.  Even during the book’s most sexually charged parts, any “titillating” effect (trust me, we know what we’re talking about here) is essentially negated by long, detailed explanations of complex relationships, and discussions of people’s ancestors, local history and topography, blah, blah, blah.  To be helpful, consider the following “rule of thumb” about pornography: any story or plot should simply be “filler” for the sexual parts, and preferably as terse as possible.  This book seems to have that entirely reversed — the sexual parts are just part of a much larger, longer, more complicated story.  And that’s just not very good porn.  All this, unfortunately, leads us to our third reason…

3.  Too much of the content has absolutely nothing sexual about it.  Honestly… whether it’s the 20-page beginning that describes (in considerable detail) the ongoing land reclamation in eastern England, to the nine-page description of the migration habits and genetic differences between the American eel and the European eel, to the persistent description of local history — this stuff just doesn’t cut it as pornography.  Eels?  The French Revolution?  Endless references to rivers, boats, sluices, and locks?  Are you kidding?  Not to be disrespectful, but in our esteemed opinion, you don’t know much about pornography.  Anyone who would have to plow through this much material to find the “sexual parts” of the story must be as fixated on the topic as we are, and quite honestly, there’s much richer material elsewhere.

4.  Trying to be diligent, we heard that there was incest in Waterland, so we tried to focus on that.  And we got to it — after we read 220 pages into a 358-page book.  But again, as we feared, there was just not much to work with here.  Yes, there’s a story of incest.  Yes, that subject can appeal to our market.  But again… the delivery is all wrong.  Instead of the graphic depictions being about sex, they seem to be more about bad outcomes of sex — abortion, suicide, etc.  In our profession, these “heavy” topics are utter mood-killers, if you get our meaning.  What’s more, the characters are much more complex and the story is much too involved for our typical readers.  In fact, it doesn’t seem like anyone involved is really having any fun, which is usually the case in our line of work. 

5.  The words themselves, and the style of writing, is just not appropriate for porn.  Let us be blunt: There’s barely any of what we call “foul language” in this book.  A word, here or there, but none of the usual “buzz words” we like to see in our materials.  Good porn uses a lot of sexual phrases and adjectives, and uses them repeatedly.  You, my good people, apparently don’t understand this.  Consider the following:

When you work with water, you have to know and respect it.  When you labour to subdue it, you have to understand that one day it may rise up and turn all your labours into nothing.  For what is water, which seeks to make all things level, which has no taste or colour of its own, but a liquid form of Nothing?  

Lest you think we’ve made the mistake of just picking out one passage and glossing over the entire book, we respectfully ask that you review it yourselves… you’ll find that the entire book is positively riddled with similar richness of language and eloquence.   And that, as they say, ain’t porn.

5.  Before we gave up, we looked over the entire book one last time to see if there was anything we could work with, so to speak.  But alas, no.  In addition to detailed descriptions of a history teacher’s final classes, and beer brewing, and the physical properties of water (!), and seemingly endless details about the histories of several families, we eventually gave up.  Way too many themes, stories, symbols, meanings, etc. — and, to top it off, the story has a number of depressing elements, including suicide, a mentally challenged child, heartbreak, floods, wars, mental breakdowns, etc.  We’re not sure what constitutes “titillating” in the Plymouth-Canton area, but for the overwhelming majority of our target market, those themes aren’t much of a turn-on.  Talk about the ultimate “cold shower” — this is the kind of stuff you find in some college-level literature class, not pornography!  In fact, once we read the book, it was clear that any of the parts we could use — and there wasn’t nearly enough of them — were part of a much larger narrative with much deeper meaning than our target audience typically cares to experience.  Porn is all about instant gratification, not hard work; plowing through 358 pages of literature with a highlighter looking for sexual references is, in our opinion, tough stuff — reserved only for censors and those who choose to ignore the literally hundreds of pages of all those “literary” elements.

In closing, while we at SLAP appreciate the fact that good citizens are always looking for new examples of pornography on our behalf, we’re unable to accept the book Waterland as containing significant pornographic material.  In our review, we were obligated to read the entire book and consider it completely, and once done, could not in good conscience admit it to our extensive and accessible canon of materials.  We recommend, as a guideline for any future book reviews you may have, that you look for pornography in places other than college-level literature books.  History, case law, and common sense all indicate that such books rarely satisfy the definition of pornography — “the depiction of sexual behavior that is intended to arouse sexual excitement in its audience.”  As such, we at SLAP regret to inform you that Waterland utterly fails as pornography.

We wish you the best in your future book review processes.


The Society for the Legitimacy of Approving Pornography (SLAP)


Until next time… 🙂

10 Lessons in 10 Days: What I’ve Learned as a New Protester

by Keith Yancy

Over the past 10 days, I’ve come to the realization that, for the first time in my life, I’m actively protesting something — censorship and banning books.

But I’ve learned more than I bargained for in the past 10 days.  I was drawn into this local drama because of my strong opinions about literature and academic freedom, and decided to get involved to get the books that were removed (or about to be removed) back in my daughter’s curriculum, where they belong.  That was, as far as I was concerned, my only goal.

But in the past 10 days, I’ve learned a few lessons — and re-learned a few things I had either forgotten or taken for granted.

1.  People really DO care.   When it comes to censorship and banning books in Plymouth, I’ve been consistently impressed not only by how many people care, but how much they care.  Letters were written and submitted from parents, students, academics, and citizens — all of whom were passionate and articulate in their defense of intellectual freedom.  It’s easy to be lulled into the popular idea that everyone is out for themselves, or that removing a book from a college-level class isn’t a big deal.  It’s great to meet so many intelligent, motivated and high-quality people, and to see them standing up to defend what they believe in.

2.  Rights are more valuable — and more fragile — than we care to admit.  Nowadays, it seems like concepts such as “freedom” and “rights” are used as currency to justify bad behavior, or the right to dispense with manners, or as the justification for taking offense to our neighbors.  But its clear to me that, when it comes to our basic, fundamental rights as Americans to choose books for our kids, most citizens do exactly what they’ve always done: resist, condemn, and fight back.  And there’s always someone out there, someone who’s often well-meaning, who’s willing to deny your rights in favor of their own opinions.  It’s shocking how close they came to succeeding — without even facing opposition.

3.  A good teacher is an asset to your kids, your school, and your community.  Teachers have been an easy scapegoat in today’s media, but my experience with my daughter’s teachers has been nothing short of outstanding.  They know my daughter, they care about her education (and her person), and they are qualified, dedicated, decent people.  In some instances, they literally do their jobs while being criticized (or undermined) by all elements of the equation: angry parents, unmotivated students, and sadly — an administration that may, or may not, defend their choices when challenging situations arise.  Meanwhile, I witnessed many former students who couldn’t praise and thank their teachers enough for their college and post-college success.  Despite what the media says, in my opinion, whatever these people make, it’s not enough.

4.  It’s a great feeling to read — and be challenged by — great literature.  Perhaps one of the most comic and satisfying aspects of a book ban is the utterly predictable outcome that results: Americans rush to read books they otherwise wouldn’t.  Local stores have sold out of copies.  Relatives and friends drawn to my “crusade” have now decided to read them.  I myself have now read Waterland, and thought it an outstanding work (Beloved is next on my list).  These books are challenging, and yes — there’s some uncomfortable and graphic elements.  But it’s clearly not the focus of the book.  It feels fantastic to be reading great literature again, with the same enthusiasm and interest I had 20-some-odd years ago as a college student.  Intellectually, it feels like I’ve stepped out of the shadows and back in the sunlight.  Reading challenging literature again is a change I intend to make permanent. 

5.  Social media has truly changed the way people gather, organize, and take action.  Shortly after the first board meeting (when the book ban people presented their arguments), an “anti book-ban” group was formed on Facebook.  In less than 10 days, they rallied over 180 members to the group, wrote dozens of letters to the school board, gained the support of several university scholars, gathered a significant amount of rebuttal research, conducted newspaper, online and radio interviews, and now are making their presence felt — and voices definitely heard — at school board meetings.  Over 1,050 people read my three blog posts about the situation, and over a dozen re-posted them.  In other words, people who try to ban books can no longer do so without drawing a LOT of attention to their actions — quickly.  And that, my friends, is a very good thing.

6.  Local politics shouldn’t be taken for granted.  My attendance at a school board meeting this week was the first of my life.  It was fascinating.  I was impressed by the earnestness of the board and the superintendent.  I was impressed by the enthusiasm and participation of the people protesting censorship.  Admittedly, I was even impressed that the “pro book ban” representative showed up.  That took some guts, I believe.  And I left the meeting realizing that my local politicians — none of whom, I admit, I remember voting for (or against), have the power to affect my life and my family.  Lesson learned.  I intend to know for whom I vote in the next election. 

7.  Everyone makes mistakes.  It’s how we correct them that reveals who we are.  Lord knows, I’ve made many mistakes.  Everyone does.  I believe the people trying to ban books are mistaken.  I definitely believe the superintendent who immediately removed a book from my daughter’s class was mistaken.  But, again: everyone makes mistakes.  It’s what you do to fix them — and the speed at which you do it — that’s telling.  Correct your mistakes… and correct them quickly.

8.  The talent of youth is truly inspiring.  Of all the speakers who advocated for returning the books to the curriculum, none were more inspiring than the former students who took time from their college studies to address the school board.  No one forced them to attend… and some traveled from pretty long distances to be there.  They were there to defend the books, the teachers and the class, and the only thing more impressive than their well-crafted speeches were the successful people they’ve become.  Even the school board was visibly impressed… some of them seemed more like proud parents than school board members afterwards.

9.  Adversity can be a great teacher.  Yes, this has been frustrating, but it’s also been satisfying, interesting, and educational.  My daughter has been involved throughout this process, was interviewed on the radio (and yes, I was very proud), and attended the school board meeting.  It’s transformed her viewpoint from annoyed (when they literally removed the book from her class) to downright angry (that the entire situation occurred).  She’s now much more enthusiastic about the course and the lessons, and recognizes now that some principles truly are worth fighting for.

10.  It’s important to be aware, to be vigilant, and to fight for what you believe in.  I may not agree with the people trying to ban books, but I do respect their right to their own opinions and beliefs.  I understand that they’re trying to protect their child, and even though I disagree with how they’re doing so, I believe they are motivated by good intentions.  But I also recognize that they tried to affect my child’s education not by gaining my input or engaging in public dialogue, but rather by capitalizing on mine (and other parents) lack of awareness regarding their actions.  Once they realized that they had created a huge public outcry, they receded (only temporarily, I suspect) into the background.  And it’s precisely this chain of events that makes me realize that you have to be prepared to fight for your beliefs, and stand up for your opinions, always.  It’s the price of citizenship.


In the meantime, I remain (mostly) patient as I await the review board’s decision on the books.  I’m not hot-blooded enough to become a permanent protester, but for the past 10 days, I’ve certainly enjoyed the experience.  Let’s hope reason and common sense win.

Until next time… 🙂

An Open Letter Against Book Bans in Plymouth

by Keith Yancy

I had considered not publishing this until tomorrow, but I’ve discovered that people can voice their opinions on banning books in a college-level AP class in Plymouth at, and since the board doesn’t meet until tomorrow, it allows people to voice their objections to censorship.  Remember, this is a college-level class.  You can certainly refer to my recent posts regarding this issue to hear arguments I have regarding this issue.  I’ve included my last letter to the school administration below, and may (time and schedule permitting) attend a school board meeting tomorrow.

Below is the letter I sent this morning.



January 16, 2012

Dr. Jeremy Hughes, Interim Superintendent, PCCS

John Barrett, Board President, PCCS

Adrienne Davis, Board Member

Mark Horvath, Board Member

Michael Maloney, Board Member

Judy Mardigan, Board Member

Sheila Paton, Board Member

Barry Simescu, Board Member

An Open Letter to the Interim Superintendent and the Plymouth-Canton School Board

Dear Dr. Hughes:

My name is Keith Yancy.  I am the father of Meredith Yancy, an AP Literature student at Salem High School.  I am writing this letter to you and the Plymouth School Board to express my disappointment with recent changes – and proposed changes – to the AP English curriculum. 

Let me be very clear: I, like many other parents, am outraged about what has taken place, and am incensed that a one group of parents has affected the choices of all AP Literature students. 

But first, let me share with you some facts.  I am a husband and father of three daughters.  I do not promote or endorse pornography.  I do not believe college-level reading material should be forced upon students.  But I do believe in providing college-level reading material in an AP-level Literature course.  I believe that it’s better to prepare my child to recognize, understand and learn from challenging ideas rather than prevent her from seeing them.  Most importantly, I believe my daughter’s rights (and the rights of other students) have not been adequately considered.

The parents in question (and “P-CAP,” the organization to which they belong) state, “This is not a book de-selection issue.  This is a parent’s rights issue and flawed process issue.”  That statement, however, is clearly incorrect.  The efforts of this group have resulted in a de facto “book de-selection” (read: ban) already, and threaten to result in another book’s removal.  Furthermore, had the true intent of these parents been about defending a process, then a review of the material in question should have occurred prior to the book’s removal, or (preferably) in an open forum prior to the start of the school year.  To remove a book from the curriculum due to a parent’s complaint amounts to correcting one procedural error with another.

This parent group has also asserted the following on their web site: “We believe, as Dr. Hughes does, that if the majority of the residents of the community were aware of the contents of these books, they would object to them.”   Dr. Hughes, I am a parent.  I am aware of the contents of these books.  And – like many, many other parents – I do not object to them, but encourage their study.  These books are not focused on sexuality, do not satisfy the legal definition of pornography, and are considered outstanding works of literature by recognized authorities.  Perhaps most importantly, I do not need other parents or a dubious organization like “P-CAP” to project their opinions and choices on my child’s curriculum – or presume that I am somehow not “aware.”

Additionally, whispers among the parents suggest that, if this group does not succeed, they will “read selected passages aloud” to the school board to alert them to the “dangers” of the books in question.  I am not frightened of such a possibility, and you shouldn’t be either.  It’s obvious to any discerning person that selecting only the salacious passages from any book ignores the larger context of the book in question, and cannot be adequate evidence for drawing an informed conclusion about a book’s value or legitimacy. 

I won’t belabor other legitimate objections, such as the requirements of the AP Literature test, the fact that such parents had ample opportunity to review the syllabus prior to the start of the academic year, or that parents in favor of the books were not allowed to directly rebut this group’s emotional and illogical arguments at a recent committee meeting.  Each of these objections has merit, but perhaps none is as important as the basic question that now rests before you:

Are all of you truly ready and willing to ban these books?

I do not envy you, Dr. Hughes, because you and the school board have a significant choice before you.  If you retain these books in the curriculum, then sensationalized attacks from those who choose only salacious passages from literature (e.g., “P-CAP”) could create a media firestorm, and perhaps even legal action from those claiming these books to be pornographic.  Of course, if you choose to ban these books, you’ll face an even greater media firestorm from those who support intellectual freedom, and potential legal action from those who would defend the First Amendment.

Dr. Hughes, I implore you and the members of the Plymouth School Board to recognize that your choice should be clear: these books should remain in the curriculum.  If a parent demands an alternative text for their child, provide one, and let that option be presented prior to the beginning of the school year.  To give in to the demands of a select few to impose their moral standards on the majority, however, is unequivocally wrong.  As a person who has earned a doctorate degree, Dr. Hughes, you know as well as anyone the value of intellectual freedom, and the inherent risk of selective attempts to limit that freedom, because you must recognize that such limits can quickly escalate to other books, other subjects, and beyond.

I remain cautiously optimistic that the school administration, including yourself and the Plymouth School Board, will recognize these recent events as what they truly are: a sad, tired refrain of the failed arguments of limited thinking.  Banning books has always been negatively viewed by the American public, and history shows that such efforts usually (and rightfully) fail.  Even now, the public at large is rallying to defend intellectual freedom and voice its opposition to censorship.  For instance: 

  • Unflattering articles regarding this misguided local effort to ban books (again, masked as “upholding process”) has already been published on the news web site, as well as the New York Post.  
  • Another article discussing the PCCS situation, under the subtitle of “Censorship,” was published in Media Bistro – a popular on-line, media-oriented web site.
  • An individual has publicly offered to provide Waterland or Beloved free of charge to any PCCS student who requests a copy. 
  • Former students, academics, and citizens from around the country are joining local parents like me and my wife, expressing outrage and opposition to the removal of these books from the curriculum.  Many of these people are preparing their own letters for your review.
  • Citizens from around the country are already alleging that the effort to ban Beloved is racially motivated.  (I encourage you to review Toni Morrison’s public Facebook page and web site for corroboration.)
  • Parents opposed to censorship are already preparing to speak publicly via radio and other broadcast media.

In other words, the opportunity to keep this issue “local” is gone, and the attempt to restrict access of the books is failing.  Thanks to the power of social media, the motivated parents of PCCS students, and the predictable outrage American citizens always express at the thought of banning books, individuals who wish to impose their beliefs on all students – not just their own children – will find it impossible to work in the shadows or hide behind closed-door, bureaucratic “process meetings” any longer.  If these voices of censorship succeed, negative coverage of Plymouth’s school system, and its curriculum, will be persistent, widespread and prominent.  Such negative coverage could only be seen as a detriment for our students, your administration, our school board’s leadership, and our community as a whole.

It would be a very sad day to see Plymouth added to the dark list of communities that banned books of literature.  Take a stand for your students, your faculty, your community and your integrity, and reject yet another shrill and hollow attempt to ban controversial works of literature.  The citizens of Plymouth – and people across the country – are watching.


Keith Yancy


We shall see.

Until next time… : |

What Kurt Vonnegut and Other Really Smart People Have Said About Banning Books

by Keith Yancy

This is not a rant.

Rather than railing on my own opinions as I await the decision of my local school administration regarding the possibility of removing books from my daughter’s “opt-in,” AP (college level) curriculum, I thought I’d share a few points made by people much wiser than myself. 

This issue is really important.  Not just to me, obviously, but to anyone who values intellectual freedom in college-level material.  Below are two brief excerpts of positions our Supreme Court took in landmark cases during the 1950s, when banning books (and burning them, in some cases) seemed to enjoy it’s shameful “golden age.”  I promise, they’re short and to the point.

 “[I]mplicit in the history of the First Amendment is the rejection of obscenity as utterly without redeeming social importance. . . [S]ex and obscenity are not synonymous. Obscene material is material which deals with sex in a manner appealing to prurient interests. The portrayal of sex, e.g., in art, literature and scientific works, is not itself sufficient reason to deny material the constitutional protection of freedom of speech and press. Sex, a great and mysterious motive force in human life, has indisputably been a subject of absorbing interest to mankind through the ages; it is one of the vital problems of human interest and public concern.”

Justice William Brennan, United States Supreme Court, Roth v United States, 1957

Where suspicion fills the air and holds scholars in line for fear of their jobs, there can be no exercise of the free intellect. . . . A problem can no longer be pursued with impunity to its edges. Fear stalks the classroom. The teacher is no longer a stimulant to adventurous thinking; she becomes instead a pipe line for safe and sound information. A deadening dogma takes the place of free inquiry. Instruction tends to become sterile; pursuit of knowledge is discouraged; discussion often leaves off where it should begin.

Justice William O. Douglas, United States Supreme Court: Adler v. Board of Education, 1951

Finally, I recalled a letter written by the famous author Kurt Vonnegut to a Charles McCarthy, who was Chairman of a local school board in North Dakota.  The following letter (and the paragraphs before and after it) were written by Vonnegut and reprinted in the book Why Freedom Matters (2003):

My novel Slaughterhouse-Five was actually burned in a furnace by a school janitor in Drake, North Dakota, on instructions from the school committee there, and the school board made public statements about the unwholesomeness of the book.  Even by the standards of Queen Victoria, the only offensive line in the entire novel is this: “Get out of the road, you dumb m(______).”  This is spoken by an American antitank gunner to an unarmed American chaplain’s assistant during the Battle of the Bulge in Europe in December 1944, the largest single defeat of American arms (the confederacy excluded) in history.  The chaplain’s assistant had attracted enemy fire.

So on November 16, 1973, I wrote as follows to Charles McCarthy of Drake, North Dakota:

Dear Mr. McCarthy:

I am writing to you in your capacity as chairman of the Drake School Board.  I am among those American writers whose books have been destroyed in the now famous furnace of your school.

Certain members of your community have suggested that my work is evil.  This is extraordinarily insulting to me.  The news from Drake indicated to me that books and writers are very unreal to you people.  I am writing this letter to let you know how real I am.

I want you to know, too, that my publisher and I have done absolutely nothing to exploit the disgusting news from Drake.  We are not clapping each other on the back, crowing about all the books we sell because of the news.  We have declined to go on television, have written no fiery letters to editorial pages, have granted no lengthy interviews.  We are angered and sickened and saddened.  And no copies of this letter have been sent to anybody else.  You now hold the only copy in your hands.  It is a strictly private letter from me to the people of Drake, who have done so much to damage my reputation in the eyes of their children and then in the eyes of the world.  Do you have the courage and ordinary decency to show this letter to the people, or will it, too, be consigned to the fires of your furnace?

I gather from what I read in the papers and hear on the television that you imagine me, and some other writers, too, as being sort of ratlike people who enjoy making money from poisoning the minds of young people.  I am in fact a large, strong person, fifty-one years old, who did a lot of farm work as a boy, who is good with tools.  I have raised six children, three of my own and three adopted.  They have all turned out well.  Two of them are farmers.  I am a combat infantry veteran from World War II, and hold a Purple Heart.  I have earned whatever I own by hard work.  I have never been arrested or sued for anything.  I am so trusted with young people and by young people that I have served on the faculties of the University of Iowa, Harvard, and the City College of New York.  Every year I receive at least a dozen invitations to be commencement speaker at colleges and high schools.  My books are probably more widely used in schools than those of any other living American fiction writer.

If you were to bother to read my books, to behave as educated persons would, you would learn that they are not sexy, and do not argue in favor of wildness of any kind.  They beg that people be kinder and more responsible than they often are.  It is true that some of the characters speak coarsely.  That is because people speak coarsely in real life.  Especially soldiers and hardworking men speak coarsely, and even our most sheltered children know that.  And we know, too, that those words really don’t damage children much.  They didn’t damage us when we were young.  It was evil deeds and lying that hurt us.

After I have said all this, I am sure you are still ready to respond, in effect, “Yes, yes — but it still remains our right and our responsibility to decide what books our children are going to be made to read in our community.”  This is surely so.  But it is also true that if you exercise that right and fulfill that responsibility in an ignorant, harsh, un-American manner, then people are entitled to call you bad citizens and fools.  Even our own children are entitled to call you that.

I read in the newspaper that your community is mystified by the outcry from all over the country about what you have done.  Well, you have discovered that Drake is a part of American civilization, and your fellow Americans can’t stand it that you have behaved in such an uncivilized way.  Perhaps you will learn from this that books are sacred to free men for very good reasons, and that wars have been fought against nations which hate books and burn them.  If you are an American, you must allow all ideas to circulate freely in your community, not merely your own.

If you and your board are now determined to show that you in fact have wisdom and maturity when you exercise your powers over the education of your young, then you should acknowledge that it was a rotten lesson you taught young people in a free society when you denounced and then burned books — books you haven’t even read.  You should also resolve to expose your children to all sorts of opinions and information, in order that they will be better equipped to make decisions and survive.

Again: you have insulted me, and I am a good citizen, and I am very real.

Kurt Vonnegut

 That was seven years ago.  There has so far been no reply.  At the moment, as I write in New York City, Slaughterhouse-Five has been banned from school libraries and fifty miles from here (on Long Island).  A legal battle begun several years ago rages on.  The school board in question has found lawyers eager to attack the First Amendment tooth and nail.  There is never a shortage anywhere of lawyers eager to attack the First Amendment, as though it were nothing more than a clause in a lease from a crooked landlord.


No, the Plymouth School Board is not preparing to burn books in the furnace (at least not to my knowledge).  But the principle, and the danger, is very much the same.  Do I believe we should shelter young children from adult themes?  Yes, I do.  But that’s not what’s going on in Plymouth.  This is an optional, college-level Literature course, in which students not only must volunteer (or be recommended), but must pass a written test to gain acceptance.  In other words, these are young adults who have demonstrated their readiness for college-level analysis and criticism, not wide-eyed youngsters or drooling zombies waiting for a study hall nap session. Furthermore, because it’s college-level material, the books under consideration for removal are the subject of questions on the required AP test at the end of the year. 

I continue to await the school administration’s decision.

Until next time… : |