Resisting Censorship: Courage and Publicity
Book challenges can come from many different directions. Most often, it appears, is the isolated challenger responding to a single event. They may see a book on a display that looks scandalous, Two Boys Kissing has seen this more than once, or it is a parent who’s child comes home with some book, whether picked up from the library or assigned in English class, who finds the content objectionable. Some challengers seek to pick up support locally whether from their church, a political group, or a parent group and leverage numbers to convince the school to change policies. In some ways, however, the most dangerous challenge is that which comes from within a school, from administrators. This is often the most dangerous type of challenge because the challenger has power and authority over the library that outsiders lack. Resisting this, I argue, takes a healthy dose of courage. Also, deploying strategic publicity doesn’t hurt either. Here, I’ll discuss two strategies nearly twenty years apart that successfully fought back attempts to remove literature.
Many have forgotten today but Harry Potter saw some of the most sustained battles at the turn of the century. I first heard of the series in 1999 when a talking head on Fox was screaming about the destruction of children’s morals and dangers of witchcraft. Robert Doyle records 25 challenges to the first book alone from 1999-2007 with similar numbers for the next few, and these are only challenges that became public. The most famous, because it ended up in federal court, occurred in the Cedarville School District in Arkansas. I rely heavily on Brian Meador’s Harry Potter and the Cedarville Censors.
The events originated with a local evangelical pastor who instructed his believers in the dangers of the occult in modern life. One believer, a mother of a student, informed him of the presence of the Harry Potter books in the elementary, middle, and high school libraries. The pastor also happened to be one of five school board members and decided to investigate. One day the high school librarian, Estella Roberts, was met with the pastor, superintendent, and the parent. The superintendent demanded to know whether the library had the books and then ordered Roberts to remove them. Roberts refused because the school board’s own policies established removal of materials: first a challenge form had to be filled out listing the problems and then a review committee would be convened made up of a mix of administrators, teachers, librarians, a parent, and a student. This was a critical juncture and we can’t know for sure but there is good reason to suspect that sometimes the librarian complies with such orders as they are faced with demands from the person that often controls their job. Roberts could not boldly refuse but she could adhere to the letter of the challenge policy. Doing so had a major effect: it transformed a hidden act of censorship into a public event. After the review committee concluded that the series should be retained by a 15-0 vote, the school board summarily ignored this recommendation and voted 3-2 to restrict to place the books behind the library desk and require parental permission to check out. While the result was largely the same as if Roberts had simply complied with the initial demand, the key here was that now the restriction occurred in an open, public meeting. And, most importantly, it generated local press coverage and came to the attention of a lawyer who was interested in finding a client for a lawsuit. By forcing adherence to policy, Roberts ensured that any decision would be public and this allowed for the possibility of resistance. This resistance was successful when a federal judge found the restrictions unconstitutional.
Fast forward to 2019, a challenge recently occurred against Fun Home. Fun Home is not as famous as Harry Potter—really what is?—but it faces its share of controversy and I’ve written about some of this here and here. On 1 February the principal of a New Jersey high school, likely having learned of this controversy, sent an email to the school librarian raising concerns about Fun Home because “[i]t has been brought to my attention that the book contains graphic images of sexual situations” and citing a single page of the book, page 214, where Bechdel depicts oral sex. A few days later the librarian received a directive ordering the removal of the book from the open shelves and allowing checkout with parental permission only. The librarian emphatically objected noting, among other things, that that allowing this type of unilateral removal outside of established policy would “enable current and future administrators to bypass board policies and remove library materials from general circulation at will based on personal objections.” This violated the rights of students and potentially placed some at unusual harm: “The unique and excessive burden that the new requirement for a permission slip places on LGBTQ students, who may not be in a position to obtain parent permission, thereby barring their access to a milestone work in LGBTQ literature.” Unlike Cedarville, this appeal to policy was to no avail as the superintendent sided with the principal and suggested that having Fun Home in the library could lead to the district being “accused of debauching the morals of minors if we were to allow free access to this material.” At no time did either the principal or superintendent address the work as a whole or anything other than this single page; from the record received it seems unlikely that either one bothered to read it. So the librarian decided to deploy outside anti-censorship resources, principally the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom (OIF). (I should note that the librarian’s role in this is based on inference and not direct evidence; given their response, professional training, and timing of various messages within the school, this is a reasonable inference.) The OIF and National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC), as well as local groups, sent letters making professional arguments against the restriction but also marshaled public exposure through blogs and the hint of the possibility of a lawsuit. The principal reversed the restriction order and Fun Home was returned to the shelves only a few days after the ALA’s letter arrived.
The first lesson of these examples is that courage is necessary to resist administrative censorship. When faced by a demand from one’s principal or superintendent, a great deal of risk comes from resistance. This can include professional retribution, demotion or firing, but also might include being ostracized depending on the broader community. The second lesson is that publicity is often crucial. In part this is because it allows supporters of books to marshal a defense where necessary. But, as the New Jersey example suggests, censors within schools hate publicity and thrive in the shadows. So long as the issue was internal, the principal and superintendent were happy to deploy their unilateral power, outside of policy, to force changes to fit their views. Once exposed to publicity from a campaign of well-respected professional groups, things changed. The fact that these groups also subtly noted that the restrictions could be a constitutional violation likely helped as well.