Preserving Students’ Access to Ideas

By Rebecca Glenberg, ACLU of Virginia Legal Director

young man reading book in the parkSchool librarians have tough jobs.  With very limited budgets and an overwhelming array of choices, they must decide which few books will appear on the library shelves.  They must ensure that books are available for every reading level at their school.  They must cover a wide range of subject areas.  They must make sure that the library contains a good mix of classic literature and more contemporary titles.  They must have books that appeal to students with diverse backgrounds and interests.

Every so often, a librarian’s judgment is questioned by a parent who takes offense at a particular book and wants to see it removed.  This month, Fauquier County High School faced this challenge for its decision to make available Two Boys Kissing, by David Levithan.  According to goodreads.com, the book is a “based-on-true-events story of Harry and Craig, two 17-year-olds who are about to take part in a 32-hour marathon of kissing to set a new Guinness World Record—all of which is narrated by a Greek Chorus of the generation of gay men lost to AIDS.”   The book received positive reviews by the Washington Post, Booklist, and Publishers Weekly, among many other national reviewers, and was long-listed for the National Book Award.

Books with LGBT themes are popular targets for challenges.  According to the American Library Association, which tracks book bans and challenges, the most challenged book in 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2010 was And Tango Makes Three, a children’s picture book about two male penguins who hatch and raise a chick together.

The parent who challenged Two Boys Kissing said that her concern was not “the homosexual nature of the book” but the “overt sexual nature of the book.”  But sexuality is a fairly common element of young adult fiction.  For example, the Fauquier County High School library also has several of the Gossip Girl novels, which (I hear) contain a great deal of sex.

The Supreme Court has recognized that “the First Amendment rights of students may be directly and sharply implicated by the removal of books from the shelves of a school library.”  The school library is the “principal locus” of students’ freedom “to inquire, to study and to evaluate, to gain new maturity and understanding.”  Thus, “school officials may not remove books for the purpose of restricting access to the political ideas or social perspectives discussed in them, when that action is motivated simply by the officials’ disapproval of the ideas involved.”

Censorship of books related to LGBT youth raises additional concerns.  The rate of suicide attempts among LGBT youth is alarmingly high compared to the general population.  There is no question that peer and community attitudes play a role in this.  Books like Two Boys Kissing can help LGBT students feel less alone, and can increase straight students’ understanding and respect for their LGBT peers.  According to one LGBT student who recently graduated from Fauquier County public schools, “I remember how it felt for me to come to terms with myself.  I remember one day I went to the library and I started reading….My librarians helped me to broaden my horizons. I didn’t have to sit around and think that I was so alone in this school.”

Happily, after a hearing this week, a committee appointed by the Superintendent of Fauquier County Public Schools unanimously decided to keep Two Boys Kissing in the library.  The move sent a much-needed message to students that the school division respects their First Amendment rights, and trusts them with reading material that some might deem controversial.   If the decision is appealed to the School Board, it should do the same.

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