My love for reading first began in the library at Harmony Hills Elementary School. Back then, checking out a certain number of library books would earn you the coveted title of Superstar Reader. This honor was commemorated by a star-shaped piece of colored construction paper with your name on it, pasted high up on the library walls for all to see.
Through these books, I explored places familiar and novel, real and imagined. I was privy to the thoughts and experiences of characters who were like me and — perhaps even more importantly — those who were not. Today’s students might not have the same opportunities now that some lawmakers are out to ban certain books from school libraries.
Here in Texas, state Rep. Matt Krause (R-Fort Worth) initiated an inquiry into books that address race, sex or “material that might make students feel discomfort” which resulted in a list of about 850 books for schools to review. When I learned that North East Independent School District used that list to remove more than 100 books from library shelves without any explanation of how the list was compiled or what was purportedly inappropriate about the books, my blood ran cold. This is how it begins.
Reading in NEISD libraries was fundamental to my ability to go to college, law school and, ultimately, to become a civil rights lawyer. The cases I most enjoy working on now are those seeking to uphold the First Amendment. Free speech is the right that protects all of our other rights in this country. Without it, our society would be no different from those in the dystopian novels I grew up reading.
If there’s one thing I learned from those novels, it’s that democracies don’t perish overnight. Instead, it starts with the slow but methodical erosion of civil liberties in a compliant, apathetic or powerless population. Subversive or unpopular speech is punished and access to information is curtailed. These restrictions are imposed by the people in power who want to win at all costs — even knowing it will lead to the end of principles and ideals much greater and more important than themselves. People can’t act upon news that they never hear about. People can’t oppose ideas that they don’t know exist.
When elected officials concoct long lists of “bad books” (that they’ve almost certainly never read) solely to curry political favor, we should all be outraged. Such lists strike against the core of who we are as Texans and Americans. We cannot claim to uphold values like free speech while simultaneously choosing who may speak and what about. Maintaining a robust and healthy democracy requires, indeed depends upon, those in power to remain neutral about the content of ideas.
It is troubling that NEISD officials chose to give any attention whatsoever to an unabashedly politicized list. It is even more troubling considering that that politicized list targeted authors, books and individuals based on their immutable identities.
Public school libraries are supposed to be safe havens for the exploration of all ideas, values and perspectives. The remedy for addressing ideas that you disagree with is not to revoke access to them but to counter them with your own speech. This explains why the Supreme Court recognized over 40 years ago that public school children have a First Amendment right to access books on library shelves, free from one-sided censorship. As the Court presciently explained:
If a Democratic school board, motivated by party affiliation, ordered the removal of all books written by or in favor of Republicans, few would doubt that the order violated the constitutional rights of the students denied access to those books. The same conclusion would surely apply if an all-white school board, motivated by racial animus, decided to remove all books authored by blacks or advocating racial equality and integration. Our Constitution does not permit the official suppression of ideas.
NEISD’s decision to remove books from library shelves was more than a technical violation of the First Amendment. To the students who personally identify with the authors, topics and themes of the books that were removed, this was an assault on who they are as human beings. They received a message loud and clear that the adults in charge of their education consider their identities to be “inappropriate” and unacceptable.
And this wasn’t the only message students heard from their leaders. Bullies were also empowered and emboldened by the district’s act. I heard from students I interviewed that after news of the book ban spread, LGBTQ students were targeted, bullied and harassed more than ever before. I will never forget the words of a student who told me that they wanted the NEISD Board to hear this message: “Stop trying to get rid of us. I am not a freak. Don’t erase me.”
While I’m glad that some of the removed books are back on NEISD shelves, I remain seriously concerned. First, I am concerned about the lack of transparency. NEISD Library Services’ public presentation at the March 14 board meeting omitted key details about their review of the Krause list of books and the rationales underlying the ultimate decisions that were made. And NEISD’s Krause book review chart, which was posted in response to community concerns about the opaque review process, is confusing even for someone with a law degree. Instead of clearing up questions, it just creates more. For books that were “updated” due to “poor professional reviews,” have they already been replaced, and if so, with what? Or are there merely outstanding, unfulfilled plans to replace such books?
Second, I am concerned by the apparent flouting of democratic process. The same NEISD officials who removed the books in violation of board policy and without board approval now appear to be circumventing board policy by changing library procedures without seeking board approval. The community should have full notice as to what Library Service’s proposed changes are, and should be given a robust opportunity to comment on those changes before they are put up for a vote by the democratically elected leaders of the District.
Third, I am concerned about NEISD’s current proposal to put stickers denoting that the previously removed books are for “older audiences” only. By placing a sticker on a subset of these removed books and allowing parents to limit their children’s access to them, the district would continue to stigmatize these books as well as the children who identify with and want to read them. Even the district’s stickering proposal is a form of viewpoint discrimination that must be wholly rejected.
When public libraries and schools target books because they disagree with the messages and ideas contained therein, it puts the rights and freedoms of us all at risk. This is not a political issue. It is about maintaining fair and neutral rules to ensure that no matter who is in power, all of us have an equal ability to read, think, and speak about whatever we individually believe.
Censorship has no place in NEISD and no place in Texas. We do not live in an authoritarian state or in a dystopian novel. Each of us must fiercely oppose and fight back against book bans to ensure it stays that way. Our democracy depends on it.