By The Book/Understanding the Proper Process for Removing a Book

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Understanding the Proper Process for Removing a Book from School Use

Can a school remove objectionable library books without running afoul of the First Amendment? The answer is a decided "yes," says Bryan Brown, a staff attorney for the American Family Association's Center for Law and Policy. Brown cautions that any removal of a book should only be attempted according to guidelines deduced from the U.S. Supreme Court's Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District v. Pico, 457 US, 853 (1982). Brown offers three points that administrators and school board members should keep in mind: 

1. Fashion a policy

If the school board has no policy regarding guidelines for book challenges, one must be drafted. A review of any challenged book should be in accordance with guidelines drafted in advance of the challenge. 

The policy should create a review committee comprised of parents and educators appointed by the board. Committee members should serve by designation of the school board, not by election, because the courts prefer that a committee be removed from politics and partisan pressure. Parents can ask to be considered for serving on such a committee. 

2. Review legitimate complaints

Once such policies are in place, any parent or educator can recommend that a book be reviewed. Books in question should be truly offensive and patently unsuitable. 

Once a book is challenged as being unsuitable, the school board must refer the book to the review committee. The review committee must then read and research the book, taking into account, at a minimum, the following: the book's educational suitability, good taste, relevance and age-appropriateness. Any and all published reviews, especially by professional associations, should be discussed and considered. Alternatives to removal, such as restricted access, should be considered. 

3. Document your reasoning

The committee should decide, by majority vote, whether to retain the book in the library or have it removed. If the vote is for removal, then the majority should put their reasons in writing. Acceptable reasons include their finding that the book is "pervasively vulgar" or "educationally unsuitable." 

Unacceptable reasons would be that the book is "un-American," religiously intolerable, or that its removal is a bid to prescribe an orthodoxy in "politics, nationalism, religion or other matters of opinion." 

The school board must then review the committee's recommendation. Like the committee, the school board should document the reasons supporting its action. If challenged, the courts will review the entire process, ensuring that the removal was undertaken through "established, regular and facially unbiased procedures for the review of controversial materials." 

Brown cites an example of parents in Medford, Wisconsin, who challenged the book Iceman, written by Chris Lynch and endorsed as a "Best Book" for young adults (sixth through eighth graders) by the American Library Association. Medford parents raised concerns that the book was in the local junior high library. 

Iceman is the fictional tale of a prone-to-violence, 14-year-old hockey player who has an unhealthy obsession with death. The book is laced with four-letter words, blasphemous slang, and repeated interviews with a creepy mortician who claims to "pimp for the dead folks I got." 

The school board voted to remove the book from the library. By following well-planned guidelines, your district will have more success in reviewing and, if necessary, removing inappropriate books. 

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