The Pacific Justice Institute (PJI), a legal defense organization, has been circulating the accusation that this network of California charter schools is culling its stock of Christian material, notably The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom.
The school says it receives state funds and so cannot allow “sectarian materials on our state-authorized lending shelves.” On their Facebook page, the school states, “No, we are not banning Christian novels at all. We are not allowed to provide sectarian textbooks however, so this is where the confusion comes in. So it’s yes to novels, no to textbooks as a public school.”
But attorneys with PJI say the Supreme Court has a “long-established precedent that strongly disapproves of school libraries removing books based on opposition to their content or message.”
Now I fully understand that “sectarian” could be defined in wild and nonsensical ways. I mean, this is California. But I have a hard time understanding how a library is supposed to operate if it can’t remove books over content issues. How did the books get in the library to begin with? If they had a volume of a decade of Playboy issues, would librarians be able to remove it based on the content?
I’m told Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District No. 26 v. Pico is in play here. In this 1982 decision, the court ruled on a disagreement over removing books from high school and junior high libraries, which the school board had judged to be “anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic, and just plain filthy.” Some students opposed this removal. For the majority, Justice William Brennan wrote:
Local school boards have broad discretion in the management of school affairs, but such discretion must be exercised in a manner that comports with the transcendent imperatives of the First Amendment. Students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate,” Tinker v. Des Moines School Dist., 393 U.S. 503, 506, and such rights may be directly and sharply implicated by the removal of books from the shelves of a school library.
Petitioners possess significant discretion to determine the content of their school libraries, but that discretion may not be exercised in a narrowly partisan or political manner. Whether petitioners’ removal of books from the libraries denied respondents their First Amendment rights depends upon the motivation behind petitioners’ actions. Local school boards may not remove books from school libraries simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books and seek by their removal to “prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion.” West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624, 642.
In his dissent, Justice William Rehnquist argued this way:
With respect to the education of children in elementary and secondary schools, the school board may properly determine in many cases that a particular book, a particular course, or even a particular area of knowledge is not educationally suitable for inclusion within the body of knowledge which the school seeks to impart. Without more, this is not a condemnation of the book or the course; it is only a determination akin to that referred to by the Court in Village of Euclid v. Ambler Realty Co., 272 U.S. 365, 388 (1926): “A nuisance may be merely a right thing in the wrong place, — like a pig in the parlor instead of the barnyard.”
There are intimations in JUSTICE BRENNAN’s opinion that, if petitioners had only consulted literary experts, librarians, and teachers, their decision might better withstand First Amendment attack. Ante at 874, and n. 26. These observations seem to me wholly fatuous; surely ideas are no more accessible or no less suppressed if the school board merely ratifies the opinion of some other group, rather than following its own opinion.
All of these ideas appear to be in play in our current Banned Books Week discussions, only the roles have been reversed. Students and parents are asking why raunchy or violent books are being recommended or required, and school boards are telling them exactly who owns the First Amendment.
In this case, the objectionable books “in the High School library 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 book in the Junior High School library was A Reader for Writers, edited by Jerome Archer. Still another listed book, The Fixer, by Bernard Malamud, was found to be included in the curriculum of a 12th grade literature course.”
But what are we to do? The real problem in all of this is our need for common morality, understanding we are going to disagree on many peripheral details. Disagreeing on the essentials, though, will tear us apart. We cannot insist that our government serve as our educator if we can’t align with the government’s agents on the suitability of school curriculum or books available in the school library.