Harry Potter Controversy about Banning the Books
This reflection paper begins by investigating censorship as related to challenged and banned books. It explores why Harry Potter has remained at the top of the American Library Association (ALA) Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books: 2000-2009 for a decade connecting with church vs. state relations. Cases are reviewed that involve Harry Potter, school districts, and the First Amendment. It was found most challenges to the Harry Potter series involved concern over witchcraft, wizardry, and magic. The Harry Potter series was also briefly analyzed from a secular humanism perspective. It was concluded the Harry Potter series could support secular humanism since it does not endorse a deity or religion and does promote making ethical choices to better mankind. This is followed by a discussion on why it is doubtful the Harry Potter series would be a part of the required Catholic school curriculum where it conflicts with some interpretations of the Catholic faith by including witchcraft and sorcery. Keywords: censorship, challenged, banned, First Amendment, secular humanism Reflection Assignment When I think of books being banned or challenged, the book Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1953) comes to mind. Not so much because it has ironically been on the list of banned books, number 69 on the American Library Association (ALA) Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books: 2000-2009, but because of the foreshadowing of what the world could be like if most books were banned.
In Fahrenheit 451, fire fighters burn books that are viewed as a threat in their futuristic dystopic world because reading could lead citizens to thinking and promote individuality. The book serves as a reminder censorship forces conformity, removes tolerance, and limits thinking. The ALA defines censorship as the suppression of ideas and information that certain persons ” individuals, groups, or government officials ” find objectionable or dangerous (“First Amendment and Censorship”, 2008). In our current reality, it violates First Amendment rights. What does this have to do with Harry Potter? The Harry Potter (Series) by author J.K. Rowling is the number one most challenged book from the ALA Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books: 2000-2009. Though classified as young adult literature, it is popular with adults and children. The series is based on the story of an orphaned young wizard Harry Potter who is raised by his muggle (non-magic) aunt and uncle until age 11 at which time he leaves to attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. He has many adventures involving magic, wizards, witches, and magical creatures. Some themes that run throughout the series are the power of friendship, loyalty, courage, good vs. evil, self-sacrifice, mortality, and love. According to Butler University (2017), a few common reasons books are banned or censored in schools, libraries, and book stores are racial issues, encouragement of damaging lifestyles, blasphemous dialogue, sexual situations or dialogue, violence or negativity, presence of witchcraft, religious affiliations (unpopular religions), political bias, and age inappropriateness. The ALA defines a challenge as an attempt to remove or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or group and banning as the removal of those materials (“First Amendment and Censorship”, 2008).
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In most cases, Harry Potter books are challenged. The primary reason the Harry Potter series is the most challenged book from 2000-2009 is its content on witchcraft, wizardry, and magic. Challenges have also focused on violence and disrespect to adults. It is mostly conservative Christians who argue it promotes pagan witchcraft (WICCA) and the occult. For example, at St. Joseph school in Wakefield, Massachusetts Rev. Ron Barker removed the Harry Potter series from the school library declaring that the themes of witchcraft and sorcery were inappropriate for a Catholic school (DeLuzuriaga, 2007). Those concerned about the religious content desiring to remove Harry Potter books from local public-school libraries and classrooms often base their concerns on the First Amendment, or more specifically the Establishment Clause. Essex (2012), In the 200 Most Frequently Asked Legal Questions for Educators asserts “The Establishment Clause prohibits states from passing laws that aid a religion or show preference of one religion over another (p.176).” McCarthy, Cambron-McCabe, and Eckes (2014) in Public School Law: Teachers’ and Students’ Rights state the “…Establishment Clause is used primarily to challenge governmental advancement of religion… (p.25).” Laura Mallory utilized the Establishment Clause to argue a school promoting religion. She made multiple attempts to ban Harry Potter books from Gwinnett County Public Schools in Georgia based on claims the books indoctrinate children into witchcraft (WICCA). The challenges, all lost, began with a local hearing and advanced to the Georgia Superior Court. On May 29, 2007 Superior Judge Ronnie Batchelor upheld the decision by the Georgia Board of Education, which had supported local school officials’ decision to leave the books on library shelves (Weber, 2007).
A differing perspective would be that of Billy Ray Counts, a library committee member, and his wife Mary Nell Counts who were parents of Dakota Counts in the Arkansas Cedarville Schools District. In their April 22, 2003 case, The Counts v. Cedarville School District brought suit “pursuant to 42 U.S.C. ?§ 1983, alleging that their rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution were being abridged by the decision of the defendant, Cedarville School District, to restrict the access of students, including Dakota Counts, to certain books in defendant’s library (295 F.Supp.2d 996, 2003).” The school board had voted 3-2 that students needed parent permission (restriction to access) to check-out the Harry Potter books after a committee had already voted 15-0 to reject the complaint of parent, Angie Haney, that focused on the Harry Potter books introducing children to witchcraft and sorcery and disrespect for adults (“Federal Court Foils”, 2003). U.S. District Judge Hendren overturned the school board decision by ordering the district to make the books available in the school libraries for general circulation. Secular Humanism It could be argued the Harry Potter series promotes secular humanism. Secular humanism, as defined by the Council for Secular Humanism (2017), is a comprehensive, nonreligious life stance incorporating: a naturalistic philosophy, a cosmic outlook rooted in science, and consequentialist ethical system.
The American Humanist Association (2018) defines humanism as a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism or other forms of supernatural beliefs, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good. There are no deities referenced in Harry Potter. There are no religions mentioned. The characters do not discuss supernatural beliefs beyond living in a magical world. On numerous occasions, when faced with danger or moral choices, Harry makes decisions based on his conscience to do what is best for humanity. David Minerva Clover (2018) in his article Harry Potter, Teenage Champion of Secular Humanism gives the following examples, “In The Prisoner of Azkaban Harry chooses to rescue an innocent animal from death and an innocent man from a fate worse than death. In The Order of the Phoenix he and his friends find a way to stand up to and resist an unjust educational regime. And of course in the final book, The Deathly Hallows, he does the morally complicated work of hunting down and defeating a dark wizard to prevent him from hurting others.” The books could be used to influence developing ethical lives and to make choices that benefit the greater good. This aligns with secular humanism. School Curriculum Currently, I work in a stand-alone parish Catholic school that is affiliated with a diocese.
While our school does not prohibit the reading of Harry Potter, I do not think it would become required reading for our school curriculum or other schools within the diocese. Part of our school mission statement and philosophy is to promote the Catholic faith. Our philosophy recognizes parents are the primary teachers of their children. Our diocese has conservative members who would not be comfortable with the promotion of magic or witchcraft in the school due to the interpretation of their Catholic faith, despite the Christian parallels in the books. From a different viewpoint, if a parent were to be concerned about the teaching of evolution (science), we would remind them the Catholic church accepts evolution as a scientific theory and the Pope himself has spoken on the validity of evolution. We would ask parents if the student could learn about evolution to be able to hold an academic argument supporting their faith. Their child, if preferred, would be allowed to do an alternative assignment. If they were to complete the same assessments as other students, they would be allowed to answer the question based on information from the curriculum and write about what they believe and why in addition. Returning to the subject of Harry Potter as curriculum, at this time the Catholic church does not have an official position on Harry Potter. There is not a specific position on Harry Potter within our diocese. This would be a faith-based concern before it would be an academic concern. If the books did become part of the curriculum, our teachers could not force students to read the books since there could be genuine conflict with their Catholic faith. Parents could request alternative reading materials and assignments to receive the academic content to fulfill diocese standards. In public school, it would matter how Harry Potter is presented as part of the curriculum on whether it could be part of the curriculum or not. It cannot be implemented in a way that conflicts with the First Amendment. Many public schools do have policies and procedures in place for parents to follow to have their child excused from a course/activities and to do alternative assignments if the material covered within the course is mandated by the state. These policies often relate specifically to controversial issues in the classroom conflicting with religious beliefs or personal values.
In conclusion, if our society chooses to challenge and ban books we limit the exchange of ideas and knowledge. In most cases, the First Amendment would be violated. It guarantees freedom of speech. It gives us choice in our reading material. Strangely, for all the challenges the Harry Potter series has had over witchcraft, magic, and sorcery its author J.K Rowling is a Christian. It was revealed in a Shawn Alde(2007) MTV news article, ‘Harry Potter’ Author Opens up About Books’ Christian Imagery, that J.K Rowling always had parallels between the books and Christianity, referencing scriptures such Matthew 6:19 and 1 Corinthians 15:26. It is interesting how if an author avoids direct references to Christian parallels in interviews about their works how secular humanism could be referenced as part of the works. Working outside of the public-school, there are potential challenges to endorsing Harry Potter as curriculum where it can conflict with the interpretation of the Catholic faith of some in the Catholic schools; though, it is welcome as reading material in our parish Catholic school.
Critical Self Reflection
This reflection assignment made me aware that the first attempt to resolve censorship issues will often be at the school level. Policies will need to be in place for the process of how to file a complaint and the process it will go through if a stakeholder disagrees with a book being in the school library and media center. It is important that those who are reviewing the complaint from the school side are familiar with the first amendment and protect the rights of the students. I realize as an administrator it is important I am aware of my personal beliefs and preferences and do not allow them to blindside me in decision making. It is important to have a team in place that can provide a system of checks and balances with the decision-making process. I found it interesting in reading various articles that numerous groups will often support schools or individuals who are standing up to protect First Amendment rights to place banned books and challenged books back into general circulation in public schools and public libraries if a case was to be filed in court. While this reflection assignment was to primarily focus on censorship and the First Amendment mostly through the lens of Harry Potter, it made me think about curriculum. It made me think about parents and teachers reviewing textbooks to be sure they are respectful of diverse cultures and solid on content. Based on this, I think the school district must have policies in place for reviewing textbooks. Many banned books can make for excellent curriculum material in the classroom. I think it is best to forewarn parents of the content of the book and the importance of why it was chosen. The teaching team should review the assignments that go along with any of the books that appear on the banned list to be sure all sensitive content issues are being handled in an appropriate manner and are respectful of diverse cultures. Policies should be in place for staff to follow on teaching controversial issues. The district policies should be clear on the process to file a complaint if a family is not comfortable with an assignment or a book chosen for a class or library. These policies should be reviewed to verify they do not conflict with First Amendment rights and current case law.