Are book bans in Texas a violation of students’ First Amendment rights?

Parents and politicians in Texas and across the country are working to remove or restrict books from school libraries in an effort to protect students from allegedly “inappropriate” content. But more often than not, the voices of actual students are excluded from these conversations and their rights ignored. To date, more than half of reading challenges are initiated by parents compared to 1% of students, according to the American Library Association.

Some of the most egregious book removals in the Lone Star State were spurred by an investigation launched in October 2021 by Republican state legislator Matt Krause into school district books that discuss race, gender or ” material that might interfere with students. His action was followed by a directive from Governor Greg Abbott in November to the Texas Education Agency to identify and remove “pornography or other inappropriate content” from public schools.

Subsequently, in December, the San Antonio-based ISD Northeast removed 414 books from library shelves to review for “vulgar or obscene content,” using Krause’s list as a guide. Jonathan Friedman, director of free speech and education at PEN America, says school boards owe it to students to conduct legitimate content reviews of books before removing them from shelves. Districts usually have policies in place dictating that books must remain on library shelves while exams are in progress. Friedman says these policies are often ignored.

“In most cases, a committee is supposed to be formed to review and make a decision,” Friedman says. “What we’re seeing in a lot of cases is school districts just giving in to these demands without following their policies, and a lot of times that’s not necessarily from the majority of people who live in the neighborhood. It’s not really democratic.

The Tinker v. Des Moines in 1969 established that students have First Amendment rights just like anyone else and that they do not “relinquish their constitutional rights to free speech or expression at the door of the school”. The case determined that school officials could not censor free speech. unless it interferes “materially and substantially” with the operation of the school.

The case set a precedent for the landmark 1982 Supreme Court case Island Trees School District v. Pico, who established that no school board can remove a book from a library simply because it disagrees with its content, but boards can remove a book. based on concerns about its “educational relevance” or “pervasive vulgarity”.

Most of the books recently targeted by parents and politicians touch on sex education or simply mention sex and gender topics. According to an analysis by Book Riot, which bills itself as North America’s largest independent literary site, about 62% of the books on Krause’s list deal with LGBTQ themes. However, Friedman says the First Amendment opposes public authorities who take down books or attempt to censor speech based on particular ideas.

“We don’t have a clear ruling from the constitutional authorities, certainly the Supreme Court, on each of these cases at this time,” Friedman says. “But there is a strong argument that aversion to books as an effort to suppress the ideas these books represent is driving many of these moves.”

While book challenges have always existed, Friedman says recent efforts have been more widespread than ever, and many of the same books are being targeted over and over again. “We see parents in Utah or some other part of the country seeing the list of books online, comparing it to the books in their local school library or school district, and then asking to have it removed,” he says.

Censorship watchers say the book ban was the worst in recent memory, with Deborah Caldwell-Stone, executive director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, recently telling Time magazine that it there had been “an unprecedented volume of challenges” in schools and libraries across the country. Some of the most commonly targeted books include Ashley Hope Pérez’s “Out of Darkness.” The award-winning novel depicts an interracial romance between a Mexican girl and a black boy set in 1930s Texas, with the real-life New London school explosion of 1937 serving as the backdrop.

Pérez says his book was first attacked in Central Texas at Leander ISD when the district suspended its use in its high school reading program and later removed the book from classrooms and book clubs, judging its content inappropriate. The book, which also featured in Krause’s survey, faced more backlash in September when a parent at a Lake Travis school board meeting quoted a passage from the book, calling it sexually explicit. .

In one December Texas Monthly article, Pérez explained that the referenced passage was completely decontextualized and was in fact intended to depict the harm suffered by the character as the only Mexican American in his school. “Creating it was painful, one of the many times I’ve written fiction where I had to portray evil that I wish didn’t exist in the world,” Pérez wrote. “I represent these views in the book so that I can reveal their toxic effect; I do not endorse them.”

Regarding concerns about the availability of so-called “pornography” in school libraries, Friedman says the term is legally vague. “None of these books we’re talking about would meet the definition of obscenity,” he explains. “A book that is obscene is designed with lustful interest. You can’t read any of these books cover to cover and say that’s what the book is for.

Pérez’s book has been challenged by districts in at least eight different states, including eight in Texas. In Williamson County, north of Austin, commissioners temporarily withheld pandemic relief funds from two school districts citing a list of 11 books, including ‘Out of Darkness,’ which contained ‘classified’ content. X”. Commissioner Cynthia Long has pledged to provide $3.7 million in CARES Act funding to districts on the condition that they remove the books from all school libraries.

The panel ultimately voted to grant the funding, but in a phone interview, Pérez said it still raised major concerns. “The antics of these parent groups have created a situation where kids everywhere are going to lose resources because of these behaviors,” Pérez says. She also finds recent reports of bans spreading in public libraries disturbing.

“I am particularly invested in students who depend on libraries who may not have other access and I don’t want to see them lose their right to books that reflect their experience or expand their experience of the world” , says Perez.

However, Pérez adds that the most devastating result is the message sent to young people whose identities are targeted. Although the books aren’t required to be read, their existence for students who need or want them has an impact, she says.

“When parents target books that overwhelmingly deal with LGBTQ, Black, Latino, or non-dominant identities, they are signaling that they oppose those identities, that they don’t belong, and that those identities threaten the innocence of their white children,” says Pérez. “The worst thing is that when school boards raise the perspectives of these parents, they support that position and for a young person with a marginalized identity, it can feel like any the school structure is set against him.

Friedman says young people are more inspired and motivated to read when they identify with the book’s characters and experiences, pointing to the temporary removal of Jerry Craft’s “New Kid” from Katy ISD. The book was eventually reinstated on the shelves, but the district then pulled five books by other authors it deemed “pervasively vulgar” in December.

“A lot of times librarians are just trying to get young people interested in reading,” says Friedman. “If this experience resonates with young people and makes them want to read books, think about storytelling and get into art, why is the Governor suggesting that books like this should not be not in schools?”

While parents play an important role in guiding their own child’s education and have the right to voice concerns about school materials, putting their rights and needs ahead of those of students is a disservice. says Pérez, adding that if necessary, parents can always request housing for their child.

“What we are witnessing is a serious overriding of parents’ rights to guide their own child’s education,” Pérez says. “We find that these parents want to control other people’s children’s access to books.”

Most conflicts arise squarely on this point, says Friedman. “It’s not about whether their own children should have access to a book, but whether children or people of a certain age should have access to a book in a school library.” Friedman adds the implication that a small group deciding which books should and should not be accessible presents a “dangerous line of thinking”.

“This suggests that people who don’t like history should be able to determine that a certain history is not being taught or that people who don’t like science should be able to determine that knowledge science should not be taught,” says Friedman.

To combat such attacks, Pérez encourages students to get their hands on disputed books and circulate them. “I think the most important thing is to be galvanized and not intimidated by it, to be unstoppable as readers, as young people and to speak up,” she says. “I think in many districts where there has been a successful response to these challenges, student voices have been very powerful.”

PEN America provided guidance to students on how to fight book bans in their communities, including a virtual teaching event in December. “Students don’t even have to say they want to read these books,” says Friedman. “They just have to say they want the freedom to go to the school library and have a choice. Why wouldn’t we want award-winning books in school libraries? Why wouldn’t we want books on all sorts of subjects to be made available to young people…to see a great diversity of literature available to them in school libraries? They should demand this.

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