Special to the Vanguard
Ludlow, MA – Last week, the ACLU of Massachusetts called on the Ludlow School Committee to reject a proposed school library policy that would impose sweeping and unjustifiable restrictions on learning materials and could effectively restrict access to LGBTQ-themed books.
The proposed policy raises numerous legal issues, including free expression, vagueness, and discrimination concerns under the state and U.S. constitutions, according to a new ACLU letter.
The proposed policy would make acquisition of any new or replacement library materials subject to prior review and approval by the Superintendent and, after public input, the School Committee. It would set extremely vague, overbroad, and repressive standards for what materials can and cannot be in public school libraries, including by banning library materials with “sexualized content” – a term that is not defined in the policy but apparently includes innocuous and age-appropriate materials, such as pictures of fully clothed men engaged in sports or dance or even a child sitting on the lap of a fully clothed parent
School district employees who do not follow the policy could be terminated. The policy is modeled on a similar one in a Pennsylvania county that is a thinly veiled effort to censor LGBTQ-themed materials.
“Across the country, there is a coordinated attack on students’ right to learn. Such efforts have no place here in Massachusetts, where our laws protect against these regressive measures,” said Ruth Bourquin, senior and managing attorney at the ACLU of Massachusetts.
Bourquin continued, “Under this proposed policy, images and descriptions of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden would be categorically banned from elementary school library materials, and librarians seemingly could be fired for choosing to introduce elementary students to the joy of ballet by showing them male ballet dancers performing the Nutcracker. We urge the Ludlow School Committee to reject this proposed policy, and hope other local officials take note. Such policies undermine students’ right to receive an accurate, inclusive education and pave the way for unlawful discrimination.”
“Students in public schools have a constitutionally protected right to receive information, as a part of their rights to free speech protected by both the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and, perhaps more robustly, Article 16 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights,” the letter notes.
The letter continues, “The right to receive information free of censorship holds special importance in the context of school libraries.”
In light of the special role of the school library, a school district’s “non-curricular decision to remove a book . . . evokes the question whether that action might not be an unconstitutional attempt to ‘strangle the free mind at its source.’”
The letter argues, “A kicker in the proposed policy is that apparently people can lose their jobs not only for not complying with these vague and overbroad terms, they can lose their jobs for not “prioritiz[ing] the selection of materials which do not contain other sexualized content, even though permitted, such as visual depictions of nude body parts.””
Writes the ACLU, “Suffice it to say that the proposed policy would make acquisition of any new or replacement materials for any public school library subject to prior review and approval by the Superintendent and, after public input, the School Committee.”
The ACLU continues, “It would set extremely vague, overbroad and repressive standards for what materials can and cannot be in school libraries, with a particular obsession with any depiction or description of various body parts.”
And it provides that any “District employee who fails to follow this policy may be subject to discipline, up to and including termination ….”
The ACLU notes that this policy would “replace an existing one under which parents can challenge the availability of individual books in school libraries.”
They add, “It is also our understanding that this process has been used unsuccessfully in the past by people seeking to restrict access to library materials about people who identify as LGBTQ+—not just for their own children but for children whose parents have no objection to the materials— and that the proposed policy may be an attempt to suppress such information through another means.
“We are also aware that the proposed policy is a nearly verbatim copy of a policy proposed in Bucks County Pennsylvania—a district renowned for anti- LGBTQ+ bias and facing litigation by the American Civil Liberties Union as a result.”
Across the country, a vocal minority are pushing to ban books from school and public libraries. According to the American Library Association, book challenges nearly doubled in 2022, after a sharp increase in 2021.
The Massachusetts School Library Association began collecting its own state data because of the increase; there have been at least 22 book challenges in the Commonwealth since fall 2022. Most of these efforts specifically aim to remove books that are by and about LGBTQ people, communities of color, and other marginalized groups.