Virginia teacher who sued over banishment of banned-books lists resigns

Friday, June 23, 2000

A Virginia high school teacher who sued after his school's principal forced him to remove two banned-books lists from his classroom door has resigned his position, raising questions about the future of his lawsuit.

Spotswood High School English teacher Jeff Newton was offered a contract to continue teaching in the Rockingham County School System but, instead, resigned on June 8 after nearly nine years at the school.

Newton was denied a preliminary injunction in May, which would have allowed him to post the lists while the trial was pending. U.S. District Judge James H. Michael Jr., however, did give Newton permission to continue using the pamphlets in his classroom.

In a June 14 report in the Harrisonburg Daily News-Record, Newton said he resigned because Michael's ruling on the preliminary injunction “boded ill for the case.” He also said that he thought his resignation would “effectively kill the suit.” Newton could not be reached for comment for this article.

School board attorney Douglas Guynn says the case appears to be one “without a vehicle” because Newton is no longer employed by the school district and the four students who joined Newton as plaintiffs have either withdrawn from the school or graduated.

Guynn told the News-Record that he planned to file a motion for the dismissal of the case because Newton and the students lacked standing to pursue the lawsuit.

American Civil Liberties Union attorney Rebecca Glenberg, who is representing Newton in the lawsuit, said questions had been raised about the status of the case but that she could not comment further.

Guynn said the judge set an Aug. 1 deadline for either side to file any motions that could determine the outcome of the case.

Newton was forced to remove the pamphlets from his door after a parent complained about the sexual and mature themes reflected in some of the books on the lists. Newton had been posting the lists, which raise awareness about the censorship of books in public schools and libraries, for the past five years without incident.

The ACLU urged the school board to investigate the matter to determine whether Newton's constitutional rights had been breached. After the school board took no action, the ACLU filed a lawsuit on Newton's behalf last January, claiming that Spotswood Principal James Slye, Superintendent John H. Kidd and the school board violated Newton's First Amendment rights by ordering the removal of the lists.

Five national organizations, which sponsor the annual Banned Book Week and publish the banned-books lists, and four of Newton's students joined the ACLU in the suit.

“What we had thought with this case is that first of all that greater attention be drawn to the issue of censorship in the public schools and that people become aware that this is still a problem and something that goes on all the time and to establish that teachers in public schools do have the right to free speech,” Glenberg said.

Robert O'Neil, director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, said he believed Newton's First Amendment rights were violated.

“We felt that constraining a public school teacher's choice of materials, not simply in the classroom, but in this case, material on the classroom door — material which is clearly educational, is related to a subject of which he has been a teacher of many years — that that kind of constraint does in fact abridge a teacher's First Amendment rights,” he said.

Guynn disagrees.

“He didn't have any First Amendment rights to be violated,” Guynn said. “Under the 4th Circuit's opinion, this is a Boring curricular matter, which means that it doesn't implicate First Amendment rights.”

He said that, in Boring v. Buncombe County Board of Education, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals defined “curriculum as, among other things, anything which may give to a parent or a student the impression that the school endorses it.”

“The school simply sought to assure that it did not give the appearance or suggestion that it was endorsing all of the readings promoted by the fliers posted on the door,” Guynn said.

Glenberg could offer no comment about Newton's plans.