Censorship foes hope schools learn from dispute over wizard books

Monday, May 15, 2000

Harry Potter books

Fresh from a victory against restrictions on J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books in Zeeland, Mich., free-expression groups are hoping that the way the dispute was settled will show school districts in other states that concerns over the best-selling children’s books are unfounded.

Chris Finan, president of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, says the Zeeland decision coupled with a growing public support for the popular series of books makes his group hopeful that more disputes can be settled without restrictions actually being placed on the books.

Beverley Becker, associate director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, agrees.

“We encourage them to keep the book on the (library) shelves until everyone can work through the process,” Becker said.

The Rowling books involve the antics and adventures of a young boy, Harry Potter, who discovers he is a wizard and who attends a special school to develop his powers. Those who challenge the books do so primarily because Harry is a wizard and they believe the books cast witchcraft or wizardry in a positive light.

In Zeeland, School Superintendent Gary Feenstra agreed last week to rescind most of the restrictions he had imposed on the Potter books last November. Feenstra acted after an advisory committee named to review the books and the restrictions concluded that most of the restrictions were unwarranted.

As a result, Feenstra agreed to restore the books to the library shelves in elementary and middle schools and to permit students to borrow them without restriction. He also reversed the previous policy of banning classroom reading of the books in middle school and requiring parental permission before a child could use a Harry Potter book for a book- report assignment.

In addition, Feenstra said that future books in the Harry Potter series would be considered for acquisition under the district’s regular selection criteria.

The decision means the only restriction that remains on the Harry Potter books in the Zeeland district is on classroom readings in elementary schools.

“I think the Zeeland decision’s very important,” Finan said. “I think we can use it to show other superintendents in other districts that they don’t have to be afraid to allow the books to be used. But there are still going to be people whose solution to this is not just an outright ban on them but just not to buy them (for the school libraries).

“We have seen this in a number of cases,” Finan continued. “Even in the absence of any complaints, librarians and school officials have chosen not to buy the books as a way to avoid problems. Public librarians are going to buy them; it’s the school librarians who are worried.”

Not buying the books for the library is less offensive than banning them outright, Finan says, but even if children are able to check the Potter books out at a public library, there can still be an access problem if the books aren’t available through the schools.

“Although there remains the possibility that they can get them through the public library, these books are in tremendous demand, and it diminishes the chance that they’re going to get to read them. It’s going to hurt kids whose parents can’t afford them or, for whatever reason, have been warned against them and don’t feel they should buy them for their kids,” Finan said.

Finan’s organization is one of the founders of “Muggles for Harry Potter,” a group fighting restrictions on the three Rowling books that have been issued to date and future selections. “Muggles” is the name given in the books to people without magical powers.

The group now has more than 3,300 members who have joined the organization through its Web site. The other founding members are the Freedom to Read Foundation, the Association of American Publishers, the National Council of Teachers of English, the Children’s Book Council, the Association of Booksellers for Children, the National Coalition Against Censorship, the PEN American Center and the People for the American Way Foundation.

The Harry Potter books were the most challenged books of 1999, said the ALA’s Becker, and they are leading the list of challenged books in 2000 as well.

So far, the Chicago-based ALA is aware of 25 challenges to the Potter books in 17 different states including Michigan. An 18th state, Oklahoma, recently joined the list as a result of a reported move against the books in elementary schools in Edmond, Okla., Finan said.

“For every one of those (reported challenges), the ALA says there are three or four more challenges that are not reported,” Finan said.

Becker said the decision in Zeeland brings to five the number of places where the Potter books have been challenged but ultimately retained in school libraries and the classrooms.

“In general, challenges are not successful. We hear about a number of challenges every year, and in general, the books are retained,” Becker said. “I think that’s because the people involved follow the procedures that are in place” so the situation is resolved “in a more thoughtful manner rather than with an emotional response.”

Finan says his group is bracing for more trouble this summer when the fourth book in the Harry Potter series is released on July 8.

“There are concerns that have been expressed about new attacks because the fourth book will deal with Harry’s adolescence and inevitably involve issues of sexuality and maturation. That hasn’t been part of the mix yet. Nobody’s attacked the books because of sexual content, so that will put a new arrow in everybody’s quiver,” Finan said. “We also hear that there is going to be the death of a significant character — one of the good guys — so that undoubtedly will raise the stakes for some parents. So we really don’t see this getting better any time soon.”