“The librarian’s responsibility,” writes William Katz in Collection Development: The Selection of Materials for Libraries, “is to separate out the gold from the garbage, not to preserve everything.”* Library budgets are tight, space is limited, and some books simply might not be suitable for some audiences, particularly young children.
Recently, the supervisor of library media at the Wichita Public School District decided that George, by Alex Gino, isn’t a book worth providing to their elementary students.
According to the Wichita Eagle:
Gail Becker, supervisor of library media for the Wichita district, said “George,” a novel by Alex Gino, contains language and references that are not appropriate for young children. She decided earlier this year that the book would not be included in a set of William Allen White master list titles provided to Wichita elementary schools.
Wichita school librarians are allowed to carry the book if they choose, Becker said, either by purchasing copies from their building funds or borrowing one from the district’s library department.
George is a heartwarming middle grade novel about a transgender child. My twins read it when they were eight. They didn’t find it confusing, and I didn’t find it inappropriate for them. There is a brief, non-graphic reference to “dirty magazines,” and a few references to private parts (generally without mentioning specific organs) that are relevant to the story and shouldn’t offend anyone.** Considering how mild the language and references are in the book, I wouldn’t be surprised if the school administrator’s stated criticisms of George are merely pretext to hide her disapproval of the book’s positive portrayal of a transgender child.
The administrator’s decision does not appear to be a complete bar on access to the novel in Wichita school libraries (a school librarian may purchase the book out of separate funds or borrow the book); however, she has inappropriately treated the novel differently from all the other novels on the William Allen White master list, and the intended effect of her biased decision is to make the novel more difficult for children to access.
Reading about this situation in Wichita has made me wonder about the constitutional limitations on book selection in public school libraries. At what point, if any, does it become unconstitutional to impede access to a book by refusing to select/acquire it?
The main U.S. Supreme Court case on students’ First Amendment right to receive information and ideas at public school libraries is Bd. of Ed. v. Pico, 457 U.S. 853 (1982), but that case did not address the issue of library selection and acquisition. Instead, it focused on the removal of books that were already there, finding that local school authorities “may not remove books from school library shelves simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books.” 457 U.S. 853 at 872.
What about the book selection process? Would a public school violate the First Amendment rights of its students when it refuses to select/acquire a book because it disagrees with a form of diversity (such as transgender identity) featured in the book?
Practically speaking, if a school or library decided against acquiring a certain book, how would the public know about it? It’s rare to see an article like the one in the Wichita Eagle highlighting a selection/acquisition decision, and if members of the public don’t know about it, they can’t challenge it in court. Maybe that’s why we have so few published court cases that mention book selection.
Pico, an old decision about a high school library from a fractured court (there was no majority opinion), may be the best guidance we have. Although this case wasn’t about the ability of school officials to “add to the libraries of their schools,” the Court acknowledged that these authorities “have a substantial legitimate role to play in the determination of school library content.” Id. at 869.
Similarly, in United States v. American Library Association (“ALA”), 539 U.S. 194, 204 (2003), a plurality decision from 2003 about internet filters in public libraries, the Court said:
Just as forum analysis and heightened judicial scrutiny are incompatible with the role of public television stations and the role of the [National Endowment for the Arts], they are also incompatible with the discretion that public libraries must have to fulfill their traditional missions. Public library staffs necessarily consider content in making collection decisions and enjoy broad discretion in making them.
However, when a library refuses to acquire a book because it presents a specific viewpoint, such as a positive portrayal of a transgender child, it is more likely that the library’s decision violates the First Amendment. See, Parents, Families, & Friends of Lesbians & Gays, Inc. v. Camdenton R-III Sch. Dist., 853 F. Supp. 2d 888, 899 (W.D. Mo. 2012) (distinguishing ALA, which involved denial of access to a particular subject, and finding that a school library could not filter internet content based on viewpoint without showing it meets a compelling interest).
Alex Gino’s George deserves to be on the library shelves as much as every other book on the William Allen White master list. A public school’s decision to bar it from the library certainly would raise the specter of viewpoint discrimination that may violate the First Amendment, even though school officials typically have broad discretion when it comes to selecting and acquiring library books.
For the Wichita schools, the good news is that every K-8 student in the district will have access to a copy of George in their school library because the author has managed to gather the funds to donate the copies. This book is important for children to read, and that’s especially true for those who are struggling with their gender identity or feel like they don’t fit in. It’s a shame that a school official in Wichita thought these children didn’t deserve to find a book in the school library that represents them.
*William Katz, Collection Development: The Selection of Materials for Libraries (1980) (quoted in United States v. American Library Association, 539 U.S. 194, 204 (2003)).
**There is one line that mentions “balls” in a way that I imagine many third and fourth graders won’t find shocking: “It looks like someone’s finally starting to grow some balls.” In this scene, a bully is referring to George. It does not encourage children to speak this way, and it’s a pretty mild reference to genitals. How sheltered does this school administrator think 8-year-olds are these days? Also, I’m curious to know if every other book in the school library is as bland and unrealistic as she expects George to be. I doubt it.
***Thank you to my sister for bringing the Wichita Eagle article to my attention. She is also the person who first recommended George to me.