Pa. school board, parents spar over banning of Dirty Cowboy
The banning of a children’s book in Annville, Pa., has ignited controversy and accusations of censorship by parents and several civil liberties organizations. As reported by the Lebanon Daily News, the Annville-Cleona school board voted unanimously at an April 19 meeting to remove the picture book The Dirty Cowboy from its elementary school libraries after one student’s parents objected to its content.
Since then, more than 300 people have signed an online petition to have the book reinstated. Most of the signers said that they live, work, or pay taxes in the Annville-Cleona School District. Leaders from the American Library Association, the National Coalition Against Censorship and the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression have also written letters of protest. Nevertheless, the school board has shown no sign of changing its stance.
The Dirty Cowboy, written by Amy Timberlake and illustrated by Adam Rex, tells the story of a cowboy whose clothes are stolen by his dog during a bath. The book’s illustrations cleverly hide the cowboy’s private parts as he attempts to reclaim his clothes. According to the Lebanon Daily News, the book received several awards after it was published in 2003, including the International Reading Association award, the Parents Choice Gold Medal, and the Bulletin Blue Ribbon from the Bulletin for the Center for Children’s Books.
At a May 17 school board meeting, Annville-Cleona school board President Tom Tschudy defended the decision to remove the book, asking parents if they would approve of him bringing a Hustler magazine into the elementary school library, according to a guest column in the newspaper by parent Tim White. White took issue with the comparison and argued that “parents are alarmed when one complainant can dictate immediate removal from their children’s reach of widely accepted, engaging material paid for by their tax dollars.”
Joan Bertin, executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, and Chris Finan, president of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, wrote in their letter that the school board acted improperly in acceding to the request of a single complaint. They also cited the Supreme Court’s holdings that nudity on its own is protected speech in Osborne v. Ohio (1990) and that school officials cannot remove books from library shelves simply because they dislike the ideas contained in them in Board of Education v. Pico (1982).
Barbara M. Jones, director of the American Library Association Office of Intellectual Freedom, similarly argued in her letter to the school board: “If a parent thinks a particular book is not suitable for their child, they should guide their children to other books. They should not be given the power to impose their beliefs or preferences on other people’s children.”
Timberlake told the National Coalition of Censorship’s Blogging Censorship in an interview in May that her book had been banned several years ago at a school in Texas and that she had once received an e-mail from a librarian who had decided to throw it away. She went on to say that while she has no issue with parents steering their child away from a book they do not like, she does not approve of a book being removed from a library shelf based on a single complaint. “That doesn’t seem fair,” she said.
Benjamin Ries is a former intern on CNN’s “The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer,” and a senior at Vanderbilt University double-majoring in film studies and political science.