Category Archives: Censorship in Schools: A Legal Perspective

Heather Matson

Resisting Censorship in our Schools

A Professional and Ethical Responsibility

First Amendment rights naturally evoke thoughts of freedom of speech and freedom of expression.  However, the First Amendment also includes the right to receive information.  According to Chmara, “the courts have held conclusively that there is a First Amendment right to receive information.  The right to receive information is a corollary to the right to speak” (2006).  But how do we know what constitutes censorship when we remove a book from our shelves or develop our collections?  What do we understand to be our students’ right to access information?  What are our professional, ethical and legal obligations around information that may be culturally, politically or socially controversial?

School librarians and media specialists are provided some guidance on the issue of censorship via the ALA Code of Ethics, the ALA’s Freedom to Read Statement, as well as the Library Bill of Rights.  They all contain language that establishes our ethical responsibility resist censorship.  The Library Bill of Rights specifically tells us, “A person’s right to use a library should not be denied or abridged because of origin, age, background, or views” and “Libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues. Materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.”  But how do we best fulfill our professional obligations and respond to requests to remove controversial material from our shelves?  Certainly, it is not enough to point to the Library Bill of Rights when those who may censor our collections demand the removal of books from our shelves.

Information professionals should also understand the laws and legislation as these will help inform decision makers on what rights our students have when it comes to removing items from the shelves or in formulating collection development policies.  Lukenbill writes there is an “emerging and broadening concept of the school and its library as a limited public forum.  Defined by American courts, this means that a traditional space such [as] a library or school is recognized by the government as appropriate for discussion, debate, and exchange of ideas, and the government cannot discriminate against viewpoints on subjects appropriate to the forum” (2007).  The library is the appropriate forum for the exchange of ideas and students have a Constitutional right to information.  This confers a corresponding obligation on librarians to protect that right by providing access to a diverse collection of information.  In order to uphold our ethical obligations, librarians should be making informed decisions about students’ rights to information to better advocate for those rights, but also to educate students about their intellectual freedoms.  To that end, we must become comfortable couching our arguments in terms of legal rights and not simply professional responsibilities.

Students’ Rights

The below court cases signal significant developments in our legal understanding of the rights students have while on school grounds.  Chmara (2010) wrote, “Recognizing…that minors’ exercise of First Amendment rights must be applied ‘in light of the special characteristics of the school environment’ (Pico 1982, 868, quoting Tinker 1969, 506), the Court has acknowledged that the rights of minors are not equal to the rights of adults” (p. 18).  The Pico case established that a school board cannot remove books from the collection simply based on whether or not they find the content objectionable, but the case did affirm the board’s right to remove content on educational grounds.

Namely, there are two circumstances under which content can legitimately be removed.  Chmara outlined these as follows: “First, school boards may restrict materials if they are motivated to do so because the materials are ‘educationally unsuitable’ or ‘pervasively vulgar’” and “Second, school boards may restrict materials that are obscene, harmful to minors, or child pornography” (2010, p. 18).  Barring these circumstances, courts have demonstrated that students have significant rights to access information, especially in the context of their school library.

A Timeline of Legal Rulings

Pico, explained below, was a landmark Supreme Court case which asserted the First Amendment rights of students and limited the authority of the school board to remove content from the library.  Prior to Pico, “six cases were brought to lower federal court…to address virtually the same act of removing books from the school library.  The courts’ decisions were evenly split – three cases were decided in favor of the board of education…and three were decided in favor of a student’s right to receive the information contained in the books” (Pelman, 2011).  This timeline highlights two of those cases, the Pico case, plus two additional cases that have historical First Amendment implications.

Tinker v. the Des Moines (Iowa) School District (393 U.S. 503) (1969)

Facts: Students at a Des Moines public school planned to protest U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War by wearing black armbands to school.  Officials learned of the protest and decided to prohibit armbands in school.  The students were suspended, sued the school district, and won on the grounds that the rule violated their first amendment rights.

Relevance to libraries: This case deals with the first amendment right to freedom of expression and not freedom to receive information.  However, it is significant in that it establishes that children do not “shed their constitutional rights…at the schoolhouse gate.”  Minors may not have the same first amendment protections as adults, but they do not lose them simply by being on school grounds.

President Council, District 25 v. Community School Board No. 25 (457 F. 2d 289) (1972)

Facts: After receiving complaints from parents about vulgar language and sexually explicit content, the school board decided to remove Down These Mean Streets by Piri Thomas.  The removal was challenged by students, teachers and parents who felt students’ First Amendment rights had been violated.  The court ruled in favor of the school board exercising its authority to remove the book.

Relevance to libraries: This case upheld the notion of the “in loco parentis policy, which states that members of the school board and the school administration stand in place of parents while students are in school and consequently should be permitted to make decisions to oversee the growth of students’ intellectual and social values” (Pelman, 2011).

Minarcini v. Strongsville City School District (541 F.2d 577)(1976)

Facts: The school district ordered the removal of Catch 22 by Joseph Heller and Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut be removed from the school library.  Additionally, the school district removed Catch 22 and Vonnegut’s God Bless You Mr. Rosewater as required reading from the curriculum.  Five high school students brought suit against the school board for First Amendment violations.  The court found the school board was acting within its authority to remove the books from the curriculum, but found they violated students’ First Amendment rights by removing content from the library.

Relevance to libraries: This case establishes the distinction between content used for curriculum and content within the library.  Legal rulings suggest that school boards have authority and leeway in determining their school’s curriculum.  However, “the Minarcini court stated that a library is a ‘storehouse of knowledge,’ and that when it is created by the state for the benefit of the public school students, such a privilege may not be restricted by the personal tastes of succeeding school boards” (Hutchins, 1982).

The Board of Education Island Trees, New York v. Pico (457 .U.S. 853) (1982)

Facts: A school board in a conservative New York school district decided to remove nine books from the high school library on the grounds that the content was vulgar and did not represent the values of the community.  The nine books were Slaughter House Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.; The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris; Down These Mean Streets by Piri Thomas; Best Short Stories of Negro Writers edited by Langston Hughes; Go Ask Alice of anonymous authorship; Laughing Boy by Oliver LaFarge; Black Boy by Richard Wright; A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ But A Sandwich by Alice Childress; and Soul On Ice by Eldridge Cleaver.  The Court found in favor of the students.

Relevance to libraries: The issue in this case was whether or not school officials could remove books from a school library because they found them objectionable.  The courts found that “the right to receive ideas is a necessary predicate to the recipient’s meaningful exercise of his own rights of speech, press, and political freedom.”  Due to its status as a limited public forum Justice William Brennan reasoned, “The special characteristics of the school library make that environment especially appropriate for the recognition of the First Amendment rights of students.”  This is arguably the most important case establishing students’ right to receive information and establishes that “reasons for removal of books from libraries must be based on educational grounds that, if challenged, must stand up under court review” (Lukenbill, 2007).  Since the landmark case, other courts have recognized that “there should not exist a ‘chilling’ of student rights, which, acknowledged by the court in Pico, are liberty of conscience, freedom of expression, and the right to receive information and ideas” (Pelman, 2011).

To view the attorneys representing each side debate the issue in 1982 on the PBS show The Open Mind, please click: http://video.pbs.org/video/1512021288/

Case v. Unified School District No. 233, (908F. Supp. 864) (1995)

Facts: A school district in Kansas removed the book Annie on My Mind by Nancy Garden, a novel depicting the romance between two high school girls.  The school board claimed, under Pico, they had the right to remove the content because it was “educationally unsuitable.”  Despite their claims, their testimony demonstrated they disapproved of the content on personal, moral grounds.

Relevance to libraries: The courts looked to Pico and determined that the removal of the book was motivated not by educational suitability but by ideology.  Furthermore, the court found that the school board did not follow its own policies regarding the selection and removal of content.  In this and even more recent cases, Pico is the precedent for evaluating First Amendment violations in school libraries.

Conclusion

Awareness of judicial findings helps us understand the First Amendment rights of students, the authority of school boards and the role of the library as a forum for the exchange of ideas.  The cases above demonstrate that the school board may have more authority to remove content from a school’s curriculum and less leeway to interfere with the library’s collection or selection process.  Pico demonstrates that students have a constitutional right to receive information and that any decision to pull content deemed “educationally unsuitable,” “pervasively vulgar,” or be harmful to minors must stand up under the scrutiny of the courts.

Resources/References

Chmara. T. (2006). First amendment and libraries. Law for Librarians, Seminar April 4-6. Retrieved from http://www.mpla.us/documents/handouts/2007/First%20Amendment%20and%20Libraries.pdf

Chmara, T. (2010). Minors’ first amendment rights: CIPA & school libraries. Knowledge Quest, 39(1), 16-21.

Heffner, Richard. “Censorship and School Libraries.” The Open Mind. Rutgers University. PBS. Retrieved from http://video.pbs.org/video/1512021288/

Hutchins, P. (1982). The first amendment in the classroom: Library book removals and the right of access to information.  Boston College Law Review, 23(5), 1471-1527. Retrieved from http://lawdigitalcommons.bc.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1722&context=bclr

Lukenbill, W.B. (2007). Censorship: What do school library specialists really know? A consideration of students’ rights, the law and implications for a new education paradigm. School Library Media Research, 10. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/aasl/aaslpubsandjournals/slmrb/slmrcontents/volume10/lukenbill_censorship

Pelman, A. and Lynch, B. (2011). The school library versus the school board: An exploration of the book banning trend of the 1980s. The Journal of Research on Libraries and Young Adults. Retrieved from http://www.yalsa.ala.org/jrlya/2011/02/the-school-library-versus-the-school-board-an-exploration-of-the-book-banning-trend-of-the-1980s/

The Right to Read Free of Anxiety