School library book challenges must follow proper legal process

By Bryan J. BrownStaff Attorney, AFA Center for Law and Policy

May 1999 – Thirteen-year-old Johnny popped into the kitchen, hoping to grab a snack before dinner. While negotiating for an untimely ice cream bar, he glibly asked his mother if she “ever knew anyone who paid to have sex with dead people?”

“What did you say?” his father roared from his Lazy-Boy. Where did this innocent, Sunday school-loving child ever get such horrible ideas? Quite possibly from his school library.

A pastor recently contacted the AFA Center for Law & Policy, thunderstruck by the happenings in his small Wisconsin town of Medford. The book Iceman, written by Chris Lynch and endorsed as a “Best Book” for young adults (sixth through eighth graders) by American Library Association, was found in the local junior high library.

Iceman tells the fictional tale of a 14-year-old, prone-to-violence hockey player who has an unhealthy obsession with death. The book is laced with four-letter words, blasphemous slang, and repeated interviews with a creepy mortician who claims to “pimp for the dead folks I got.”

A committee of parents and educators in Medford reviewed Iceman, and by majority vote recommended that it be removed from the library. The town newspaper and its attorney cried censorship and threatened litigation.

Thus the question was raised: Can a school remove objectionable library books without running afoul of the First Amendment? The answer is a decided “yes.” But such removal should only be attempted according to guidelines deduced from the Supreme Court’s Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District v. Pico, 457 U.S. 853 (1982).

1. Fashion a Policy
Review of any book reported to be unsuitable for the school library should be undertaken pursuant to guidelines drafted well ahead of the challenge. Thus parents should write their school board and inquire as to the policy for removal of an offensive book prior to actually making a request that a particular book be removed. If the school board has no such policy, one must be drafted.

The policy should create an appointed review committee, made up of parents and educators. Committees members should serve by designation of the school board, not by election, for the courts look for a committee removed from politics and partisan pressure. Parents who care should volunteer to sit on the committee.

2. Lodge a Complaint
Once such policies are in place, any parent can recommend a book be reviewed. Overreactions should be avoided. That is, the books targeted should be truly offensive and patently unsuitable.

Once a book is challenged as being unsuitable, the school board must refer the book to the reviewing committee. The review committee must then read and research the book, taking into account, at a minimum, the following: the book’s educational suitability, good taste, relevance, and age-appropriateness. Any and all published reviews, especially by professional associations, should be discussed and considered. Alternatives to removal should be considered.

3. Document Your Reasoning
The committee should decide, by majority vote, whether to retain the book in the library, or have it removed. If removal, then the majority should put their reasons in writing. Acceptable reasons include that the book was found to be “pervasively vulgar” or “educationally unsuitable.” The latter topic would be germane if the book undertook discussion of adult and arcane subjects, such as necrophilia or other perversions.

Unacceptable reasons would be that the book was “un-American,” religiously intolerable, or other such viewpoint specific charges supporting the conclusion that the book was removed in a bid to prescribe an orthodoxy in “politics, nationalism, religion or other matters of opinion.”

The school board must then review the committee’s recommendation. Like the committee, the school board should document the reasons supporting its action. If challenged, the courts will review the entire process, ensuring that the removal was undertaken through “established, regular and facially unbiased procedures for the review of controversial materials.”  undefined