The removal of 414 library books by North East Independent School District officials to review for “vulgar or obscene” content “flies in the face” of a U.S. Supreme Court decision that said books cannot be removed from school libraries on political grounds, according to an expert on free speech and First Amendment issues.

NEISD librarians began pulling copies of 414 books from school library shelves Dec. 2 as part of a review process to weed out books that contain “obscene or vulgar material,” Superintendent Sean Maika wrote in a Dec. 7 letter to families. The district, the second-largest in San Antonio with 60,000 students, used the list of about 850 books state Rep. Matt Krause (R-Fort Worth) asked districts to identify as part of an investigation into “school district content.”

In late October, Krause, chair of the House Committee on General Investigating, told the Texas Education Agency that he was initiating the inquiry into books that address race, sex or “material that might make students feel discomfort.”

Maika said the district used Krause’s list as a “jumping off point” to review library books after a racist book found in some NEISD libraries came to his attention last spring. Out of the 414 titles on the list found in the district’s online book catalogue, librarians have deemed 100 of those books as acceptable and another 75 for potential removal or relocation, NEISD spokeswoman Aubrey Chancellor said.

“When you know that you have at least one book that may be questionable and then you choose to take no action, that could seem irresponsible,” she said. “Our administration felt really that it was our obligation and our duty to check these books in the best interest of our students and our parents.”

The racist book Maika referred to but did not name was The Story of Little Black Sambo, Chancellor said. Published in 1899, the children’s book has long been a source of controversy for its depictions of Black people through racial stereotypes.

Ken Paulson, director of the Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee State University, said NEISD’s removal of books from library shelves before they have been reviewed could be unconstitutional. In 1982, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District v. Pico that school boards and administrators have the right to remove books from school libraries if they have “legitimate concerns about vulgarity and inappropriate content that will potentially harm growing minds.”

“The Pico case very clearly says that school districts cannot remove books for political reasons. They cannot remove books to suppress ideas,” he said. “Removing books from a public library even for an interim period flies in the face of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Pico. The heart of that case was the fact that there had been no fact-finding about the merits of books being banned. A school district has an affirmative obligation to do a genuine review and not pre-judge the merits of the books by taking them off the shelf.”

Paulson called the discovery of The Story of Little Black Sambo as the driver of NEISD’s book review and removal a “red herring.” Paulson said the book was popular in the 1950s and that “enlightened libraries” removed it long ago.

“There is not a library professional in this country that does not know about the Little Black Sambo controversy,” he said.

Krause’s 16-page list includes best-selling and award-winning books, such as the 1967 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. A Dallas Morning News analysis of the first 100 titles listed found that 97 were written by women, people of color or LGBTQ authors.

“That list could not be more transparent in terms of depriving young people of information about their lives,” Paulson said. “This kind of censorship is almost quaint. It’s as though these censors don’t realize it’s no longer 1957 and there’s a thing called the internet, where young people can get all the information they want.”

Mariajose Llama, a senior at NEISD’s Reagan High School, started a petition to advocate against the district’s use of the Krause list. It had garnered more than 2,600 signatures as of Friday.

Llama said students and parents should have a say in what books are removed from school libraries and that it’s not fair for a few people to decide what is appropriate for students to read. She said students would not check out the books from the library if they are uncomfortable with the books’ subjects.

“There are many ways to go about this without taking all the books out,” she said. “People deserve to be heard, especially with topics like these. I feel like the government shouldn’t have a say in what we are teaching ourselves.”

Also, as a member of the LGBTQ community and a Latina, Llama feels targeted because many of the books on the list were written by people of color and LGBTQ authors. She questioned why books that explore white privilege, racism and LGBTQ issues would be considered inappropriate but not books she’s had to read for class, such as To Kill a Mockingbird, that contain racial slurs that could be triggering for some students. Llama also read Fahrenheit 451 for class, which warned of the dangers of censorship.

“We all know that this is bad,” she said.

Chancellor said the review has nothing to do with the gender of the characters in the books and that in the past NEISD has relied on publishers to determine what titles are appropriate for elementary, middle and high school students.

“We’re simply looking for whether there is obscene or vulgar material and whether it’s appropriate for that particular age group,” she said.

In a statement, North East Educators Association President Adonis Schurmann said the teachers union does not want students exposed to “obscene or age-inappropriate material,” but it opposes “the politically motivated efforts at censorship being driven by some state officials on the eve of an election year.”

“The North East Educators Association is seeking assurances from district administrators that no book is judged obscene or vulgar simply because it deals with a subject, such as race relations or LGBTQ issues, which make some parents or politicians uncomfortable,” Schurmann said in the statement. “That would be an abuse of the educational process and a disservice to our students.”

Furthermore, the union asked school officials not to place restrictions on books or remove them from schools unless a panel of educators and parents determine the books are inappropriate after a “careful review.”

Currently, NEISD policy allows parents to submit complaints about books, and a committee of parents and educators decides whether the books are appropriate, Chancellor said. The books remain on library shelves during that process.

The district plans to form a book review committee and add an electronic tool so parents can see which books their students check out from the library, Maika said in the letter.

“This is not about politics or censorship,” he said. “This is about ensuring that the books in our libraries do not contain obscene or vulgar material.”

Brooke Crum

Brooke Crum is the San Antonio Report's education reporter.