Rockingham County English teacher Jeff Newton has been fighting censorship for years, he says, by posting a list of oft-banned books on his classroom door "to inform students about that touchy area between art and government."
Now the rural Virginia teacher says he is caught in that vise himself.
This fall, a parent walking by Newton's classroom saw the list--contained in an American Library Association pamphlet called "Read a Banned Book"--thumbed through it and lodged a complaint with school officials. The high school's principal then ordered Newton to take the list down.
This week, Newton, four high school students and five groups representing libraries, booksellers and authors filed suit in U.S. District Court in Harrisonburg, Va., alleging that banning the banned-books list violated their First Amendment rights.
Teachers routinely post all sorts of things on their doors, but only this pamphlet was singled out for removal, said Kent Willis, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, which is representing Newton. "They've given him this space, and they can't then selectively remove things from it without a process," Willis said.
Spotswood High School Principal C. James Slye declined to comment on the case, but according to a letter he wrote to Newton in the fall, he objected to three titles on the list of more than 80 books: "The Joy of Gay Sex," "Understanding Sexual Identity: A Source for Gay Teens and their Friends" and "Women on Top: How Real Life Has Changed Women's Fantasies."
"Any posting or display on a teacher's classroom door is considered an extension of a approved curriculum," Slye wrote. "A teacher's door . . . is not a billboard or a vehicle for the promotion of the reading of such books."
But Newton, 47, said: "It's very dispiriting. . . . To say, 'Read this,' is not to say, 'Believe this.' "
Douglas Guynn, the attorney for Slye and the Rockingham County School Board, did not return a message left at his office.
Legal experts said it is not clear how Newton's case fits into existing precedents. A plurality of the U.S. Supreme Court held in 1982 that school boards may not remove books of which they disapprove from the school library. More recently, the court found that in areas where public displays are permitted, governments cannot prohibit certain material because of its content.
But the courts have generally given public schools authority to regulate instruction.
"If [the list] is part of the curricular program, school authorities have much greater control, as long as it's a reasonable regulation," said George Washington University law professor Thomas Dienes.