Calling parents contesting the inclusion of sexually explicit content in school libraries “book burners” demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of parents, censorship, and the role of local elected officials. For the most part, the parents being accused of being book burners are emphatically not in favor of censorship. We sympathize with the challenges of balancing multiple worldviews and treasure Americans’ First Amendment protections.
The only arguments against removing sexually explicit, obscene materials from the libraries are strawmen — that removing anything from anyone at any time is “censorship.” However, removing sexually explicit materials from school libraries in no way censors ideas against a specific regime, government, or political idea. In fact, removing such materials from school libraries does not even remove the material from the public space. In fact, all of the books parents are contesting are available in the public domain to anyone who wants them. Removing this material from the school libraries simply ensures that school libraries are safe spaces for all children.
The second argument is that removing explicit materials removes representation. However, parent activists around the country have read hundreds of books in school libraries and found hundreds of books tell minority stories that do not contain sexually explicit content. No parent has ever requested that a book be removed because of representation, only inappropriate content.
The third argument is that parents should trust the professionals. Trust is earned. School librarians in many, if not most, cases have stated that they do not read materials prior to purchasing them. Librarians rely on publishers and book reviewers’ comments about books to determine appropriateness. Either these sources are lying to libraries so they purchase such material or school personnel think it is appropriate to provide such material. Either situation negates parents’ ability to trust school personnel to make age appropriate choices.
The final argument in favor of such content is that parents can just restrict what their own kids have access to. Unfortunately, school librarians do not know all the content that is in their libraries, and so it is impossible to proactively limit a child’s access. Further, individually restricting books for children does not address the societal harm that exposing children to explicit content creates.
There is no question that sexually explicit content is in American schools. School librarians and administrators are not contesting that fact. The point of disagreement is in whether the “literary merit” of these works outweighs the lewd nature of the content. The completely subjective nature of “literary merit” is what makes consideration of laws and standards of public morality in the community so important when determining which books should be available to school children. Unfortunately, school libraries in many districts are not choosing books with either law or community standards in mind.
As citizens in a constitutional republic, the legitimate avenue by which American parents can provide feedback to the government is through their elected officials. Members of the school board are parents’ first point of contact in this system. In the 1982 Pico versus Island Trees School District decision, the Supreme Court ruled that school boards have the right to remove pervasively vulgar books from school libraries. In one of the opinions on the Pico decision, a Justice identified local school boards as the appropriate body to determine community standards for obscenity.
Parents petitioning their local school boards and to remove sexually explicit materials from school libraries is in no way governmental censorship of ideas. It is the way the democratic process should work. If parents cannot have their concerns addressed it means that the feedback and redress process is broken, which does not bode well for the stability of the Republic.