Facing a packed room of vocal community members Thursday night, the Central Bucks School Board sought to tamp down criticism of a proposed library policy that has spurred fears of censorship and attracted the attention of the American Civil Liberties Union.
The board’s policy committee did end up striking provisions that would have required all new books to gain its approval before they could be added to school libraries, a standard that some called burdensome and that would cede too much power to the board. And although critics said policy language targeting “sexualized content” would encompass too broad a swath of books, the board’s president promised the classics would remain, and there would still be “some discretion.”
But both the ACLU and Education Law Center, which are closely following the district’s actions, said Friday the policy advanced by the committee was still problematic.
“They’re playing with fire here,” said Vic Walczak, legal director for the ACLU of Pennsylvania.
Here’s what the policy says and why it’s raising concerns.
What led to the new library policy?
Around the region and nationally, parents and GOP politicians have been complaining about school library books with sexually explicit content — often while accusing schools of seeking to “indoctrinate” children around gender and sexuality. In Central Bucks, where Republicans dominate the school board, community members this spring spoke out at board meetings about a number of books, including some focused on LGBTQ characters that are the among the most banned nationally.
On Thursday, the board’s president, Dana Hunter, said that a parent had “brought a concern regarding a book they had found in the library” to the board. She didn’t note what the complaint was, but said that in considering it, the board realized it didn’t have a library policy in place.
“The intent was to give parents a process,” Hunter said.
What does the policy say about ‘sexualized content’?
The policy lays out the district’s objectives for school libraries, how books should be selected and by what criteria, and procedures for challenging books.
It also includes a section on “avoiding inappropriate content,” which includes much of the language that has drawn backlash.
“Sexualized content that falls short of material prohibited by criminal laws is nonetheless generally inappropriate and/or unnecessary for minors in school,” the policy reads. It then spells out different categories of such content that “no materials ... shall contain.”
In high school libraries, for instance, no materials shall contain “visual or visually implied depictions of sexual acts or simulations of such acts,” or “explicit written descriptions of sexual acts.” In elementary libraries, “visual depictions of nudity or implied nudity” are also on the list; middle school libraries aren’t supposed to have depictions of nudity, either, except for “materials with diagrams about anatomy for science or content relating to classical works of art.”
While board members acknowledged some of the criticism of the policy Thursday — including striking a provision that would have required the district’s library supervisor, or a designee, to read every book before recommending it for approval — they didn’t touch the language about “sexualized content.”
What are the concerns with the policy?
“The policy suffers from what’s often called in First Amendment land as the twin evils of vagueness and overbreadth,” said Walczak, of the ACLU. “What’s ‘implied nudity’? I ask that with all seriousness.”
After Thursday’s meeting — where a number of teachers pleaded with the board not to restrict their autonomy as educators — one district librarian pointed to the “inappropriate content” section of the policy and said: “This is the part that makes it impossible to do our jobs.”
For middle schools, for instance, the policy says selectors of library materials “shall seek to prioritize the selection of materials that do not contain other sexualized content, such as implied written description of sexual acts or implied nudity.”
Librarians often decide what to order after reading professional reviews, which “aren’t going to tell you what’s implied in something,” said the librarian, who requested anonymity out of concerns of retribution from the district.
That’s part of the problem with vague standards, Walczak said: “If you’re worried about getting it right, being disciplined ... you’re going to over-censor.”
The focus on sexualized content is also an issue, according to the Education Law Center of Pennsylvania.
The “absence of a requirement to consider literary merit and whether the books at issue have received critical acclaim,” along with objections from the district’s own staff, suggest it is “not tailored to be objective,” lawyers with the center wrote in a letter to the district Thursday. “This is against the law and discriminatory.”
What is the school district’s response?
During Thursday’s meeting, the district’s solicitor, Jeffrey Garton, drew a distinction between book selection and removal.
“Clearly, kids have First Amendment rights that may prevent you from removing books from libraries,” Garton said. He also told the board that “when you remove books, your criteria and your standards are much different than just adding books.”
Hunter, the board president, suggested people’s worries about sweeping book removal were unfounded. “We don’t have the ability to remove books. We only have the ability to restrict what goes in going forward.”
Both the ACLU and Education Law Center said the policy still opened the door to broader challenges.
“You’ve got to look at what they write and not listen to what they say,” Walczak said. “There’s no way you can read that policy to say this is only about selection.”
Kristina Moon, senior attorney with the Education Law Center, said it was fair to expect that policy “that sets out values in this way is going to inform other decisions.” She said that in outlining prohibitions on sexualized content, the board was defining what it deemed “suitable” materials, serving as “the basis for challenges and exclusions.”
What happens next?
The policy now goes to the full school board for a first read at its June 10 meeting, according to the district. A copy of the revisions made Thursday will be publicly available a day before the meeting, said spokesperson Christine Reimert.
The policy could then be voted on at a following meeting in July, or be sent back to committee for further changes.
In the meantime, legal observers say they are continuing to keep an eye on the district, including complaints the district is a hostile environment for LGBTQ students. Among recent policy changes, the district called for the removal of Pride flags from classrooms and shifted its sex education classes online after facing backlash for directing transgender students to attend classes in line with their sex assigned at birth.