At the beginning of the month, there were news reports that a school district in Illinois had banned Todd Parr’s The Family Book because of its reference on one page to families with two moms or two dads. Commenters have claimed that the book remains on school shelves, so who knows whether the ban actually went into effect. Either way, the news piqued my interest in the book and it made me wonder about the constitutional parameters of book banning.
In the 21st Century, in a country built on democratic principles and in a world connected by the internet, it is hard to believe that American school districts and localities still ban books. But apparently book banning is alive and well, and The Family Book may have been a victim of it. Banning a book because it contains an accurate statement that a school board dislikes, such as “some families have two moms or two dads,” likely runs into constitutional problems.
The United States Supreme Court looked at book banning way back in 1982 and, in a plurality opinion in Board of Education v. Pico, Justice Brennan wrote:
The Court has long recognized that local school boards have broad discretion in the management of school affairs…, [but] local school boards may not remove books from school library shelves simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books and seek by their removal to “prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion.”
Bd. of Educ. v. Pico, 457 U.S. 853, 863, 872 (1982) (quoting West Virginia Bd. of Educ. v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624, 642 (1943). As a plurality opinion (meaning a majority of the court couldn’t agree on anything) from three-decades ago with a completely different composition of the Supreme Court, it’s hard to know whether the Supreme Court would follow it today (and who knows what “facts” the Supreme Court would generate from thin air while defining the contours of our rights under the First Amendment).
The 11th Circuit, which is the federal court with appellate jurisdiction over the federal district courts in Florida, Alabama, and Georgia, was sour about Pico, concluding, “With five different opinions, and no part of any of them gathering five votes from among the nine justices — only one of whom is still on the Court — Pico is a non-decision so far as precedent is concerned. It establishes no standard.” ACLU, Inc. v. Miami-Dade County Sch. Bd., 557 F.3d 1177 (11th Cir. 2009). That court had the task of determining whether a school board’s decision to remove a book violated the First Amendment, and they decided that it did not. Id. Basically, the court found that regardless of whether the Supreme Court’s plurality opinion in Pico applies, the Board’s action in removing Vamos a Cuba did not violate the First Amendment because it was banned because it contained “inaccuracies” not because “they dislike the ideas contained in [the] book.” Id.
So, school districts might be able to ban whatever book they want, simply by claiming that ideas they don’t like are “factual inaccuracies.” I don’t like false statements (of which my sanitized American history textbook in high school contained several) in books contained in school libraries either, but I would rather someone challenge those false statements by writing another book detailing the inaccuracies instead of resorting to censorship. Allowing school boards to censor books gives them too much control over what ideas children can be exposed to without having to show any real threat to the well-being of children.
Really, what’s the harm of books like Parr’s The Family Book? I read it and And Tango Makes Three, another book that sparked controversy for its portrayal of gay penguins, to my three children (four-year-old twins and a 14-month-old). They loved both books. My twins are old enough to understand the lesson, while my youngest still wants to chew on the pages. What I like about these books is that they reinforce the importance of being tolerant of other families that don’t look like our family. Am I worried that teaching my children to be tolerant is going to “make” them gay? No, and even if it somehow did, so what? That’s what tolerance and acceptance mean.