Challenge at Beulah

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By Marlene Anderson
Originally appeared in the March 2009 issue of The Good Stuff, the official magazine of the North Dakota Library Association

On January 15, 2009, in a 4-3 split decision, the Beulah School Board removed the book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt from the Beulah High School Library. Midnight had never been banned from any public library collection before.

Midnight was published in 1994 and was very popular. In fact, it was on The New York Times bestseller list for 216 weeks, or a little better than four years. Set in Savannah, Georgia, Midnight tells about the real-life murder and trial of John Williams and also explores the colorful history of Savannah and the lives of some of its eccentric citizens. The book won the Southern Book Award and was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction. In 1997, Clint Eastwood directed a film based on the book, which starred John Cusack, Kevin Spacey, and Jude Law.

The action to remove the book from the Beulah High School Library began with a request filed in October 2008 by the parents of a high school student who selected the book from an accelerated reading program list. In the “Citizens Request Form for Reconsideration of Media Materials” completed by Keith and Kathy Bohn, they said the book “implants thought patterns that are absolutely against what we try to instill in our students here at Beulah High. I realize that I have not read the book in its entirety, and maybe somewhere it doesn’t condone the sinful nature we are pointing out. But what we see is a very aggressive approval of … things we as a school (and a) community don’t approve.”

When the reconsideration form was filed, in accordance with school policy, School Superintendent Robert Lech appointed a committee to review the book. Kathy Cline, Beulah High’s librarian, chaired the committee. Other committee members included the high school principal, an English teacher, a lay person from the community, and a student. Committee members read the book and unanimously agreed that Midnight should remain on the library shelves. Superintendent Lech notified the Bohn’s of the committee’s decision in a letter dated November 24, 2008.

One of the things the committee looked at in making its decision was the American Library Association’s Freedom to Read statement, which says: “Parents and teachers have a responsibility to prepare the young to meet the diversity of experiences in life to which they will be exposed, as they have a responsibility to help them learn to think critically for themselves.” This statement was jointly issued in May 1953 by the Westchester Conference of the American Library Association and the Association of American Publishers. It has been endorsed by groups including the Children’s Book Council, National Coalition Against Censorship, and the National Council of Teachers of English.

When the Bohn’s received word of the decision, they filed an appeal of the committee’s decision and made a presentation to the school board, which resulted in the board’s decision on January 15, 2009, to remove the book from the high school library. None of the board members had read the book that they decided to ban.

The school board decision generated a lot of buzz in the Beulah community and galvanized students and others to take further action. In response, the school board held a special meeting on Monday, January 19, 2009, to revisit the issue. Board president Phil Eastgate said, “We as a board may have failed. I may have failed by not encouraging the board to seek counsel and didn’t research other options. I should have said let’s slow down and maybe read the book, too.” In the end, the board reversed its decision and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is back on the shelves at the Beulah High School Library.

John Berendt, the book’s author, followed the controversy and also wrote letters to the editor that ran in several North Dakota newspapers. He said he planned to send signed copies of Midnight to the three Beulah High School girls who defended their right to read the book at the special board meeting. Berendt also said, “The (Beulah High School) librarian is a hero, in my book. She said all the right things.”

Could You Handle a Challenge at Your Library?

There are many resources and tools available from the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom. Don’t be surprised by a challenge. It can happen to anyone, anywhere, anytime. Be prepared.