What Rights Do Students Have To Access Books?

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Keeping books out of the hands of students is one way that people want to control minors’ access to information. Book censorship has steadily been on the rise, and challenges quadrupled in 2021. Couple this with the recent attack on teachers and attacks on school libraries, and it raises the question: what rights do students actually have to access books?

The first place children can access books if they are not available in their homes is in school. Books can be found in classrooms and the school library. School libraries are vitally important for access, especially for children who don’t have access to transportation to public libraries or the funds to purchase books at bookstores. The American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights article V states: “A person’s right to use a library should not be denied or abridged because of origin, age, background, or views.” The bill of rights specifically states age as a reason patrons should not be denied access to books.

Even more than the Library Bill of Rights, the First Amendment protects the rights of students:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

First Amendment

The goal of the First Amendment is to create informed citizens capable of self-governance. Benjamin Rush, a statesman and founding father, stated during an address to the people of the United States in 1787 that “to conform the principles, morals, and manners of our citizens to our republican form of government, it is absolutely necessary that knowledge of every kind should be disseminated through every part of the United States.” The right to information and knowledge has been viewed as essential to our democracy since its inception.

Further, the Fourteenth Amendment extends the limits of the First Amendment by protecting the people’s rights to public education. Now, not only is it federal law, but state and local laws also ensure access to education and knowledge. Public schools and school libraries are part of local government; they must follow the First Amendment.

Of course, adults in the community want to control what information their students have access to. This is nothing new. Books have been under attack by people wanting to censor them since the beginning of their existence. In 360 BCE, Plato describes what he believes the ideal republic would look like, “Our first business will be to supervise the making of fables and legends; rejecting all which are unsatisfactory.”

Admittedly, it was much easier to censor books before the printing press because all a person had to do was burn that particular book and it would be gone forever. Twenty years after Johannes Gutenberg changed the world with the printing press, Germany established their first official censorship office when an archbishop petitioned the town officials to censor “dangerous publications.” Pope Paul IV ordered the first Index of Prohibited Books, Index Librorum Prohibitorum, in 1559. And on and on.

In 1975, the war continued with Island Trees School District vs. Pico. In this case, a New York school board received a complaint from parents in the community that school policies on library books were too “permissive.” The parent group complained about nine books specifically including Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five and Langston Hughes’s Best Short Stories by Negro Writers claiming they were “anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic, and just plain filthy.”

The school district removed the books in response in February of 1976 without the formation or consultation of a committee. A senior at the time, Steven Pico joined with other students to challenge the school board’s decision. A dozen free speech and library organizations filed briefs on behalf of the students. In 1982, the case made it before the Supreme Court, which resulted in a 4 to 5 ruling in favor of the students.

“Students may not be regarded as closed-circuit recipients of only that which the State chooses to communicate.”

Tinker v. Des Moines (1968)

An earlier Supreme Court case, Tinker vs. Des Moines, which advocated for students’ freedom to wear armbands in protest of the Vietnam War, reasoned, “students may not be regarded as closed-circuit recipients of only that which the State chooses to communicate.”

Justice William Brennan noted that “special characteristics of the school library make that environment especially appropriate for the recognition of the First Amendment rights of students.”

three round white wooden tables
Photo by Drahomír Posteby-Mach on Unsplash

This ruling is school library specific. It does not apply to curriculum development. Schools change which books are included and excluded from curriculum regularly based on pedagogical reasoning that material needs to be age appropriate. In Virgil v. School Board of Columbia County, the Court of Appeals agreed with the school board’s decision to remove selected portions of texts from a humanities curriculum. By upholding the removal, the court emphasized that the challenged texts remained in the school library allowing for what the Pico case called “voluntary inquiry” where the students could seek out the materials that were omitted in the classroom if they were curious. Students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate” (Tinker v. Des Moines), but they aren’t necessarily available in the classroom either.

The distinction of having the material available versus allowing that material to be taught is a fine line. The nuance of schools’ many responsibilities was highlighted in the 2021 Mahanoy Area School District v. B. L.: “They must teach basic and advanced skills and information; they must do so for students of different backgrounds and abilities; they must teach students to work independently and in groups; and they must provide a safe environment that promotes learning.” Given these responsibilities, school employees and officials have more to consider than other state employees when it regulates free speech and access to information for students.

“It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

Tinker v. Des Moines (1968)

For example, in 2007 Morse v. Frederick, the Supreme Court emphasized the importance of students’ ability to participate in political speech while allowing school administrators’ authority to discipline students who advocate for illegal drug use. A student was suspended for displaying a sign that read “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” across the street from a school while students were dismissed to watch an event outside. Holding the sign and using voice wasn’t the issue, encouraging underage and illegal drug use was.

Access to free speech available in books in school is a sticky thing. Most states have enacted a “harmful to minors” obscenity statute. Ginsberg v. New York (1968) first introduced this concept when an adult magazine was sold to a 16-year-old, but it has its limits, because states can’t simply ban minors’ exposure to an entire category of speech, such as nudity, when it might only be inappropriate for only a portion of that group. Determining whether material is “harmful to minors” must consider the entire population of minors, including the oldest among them, and in high schools this includes people who are 18, 19, and 20. Many schools get around this by offering books of all levels in the library, should students choose to seek them out.

As Theresa Chmara put it, “Students’ First Amendment rights in the school library context, therefore, are broader than those in a class, a school-sponsored assembly, or other curriculum based activities.”

“[T]he school board’s non-curricular decision to remove a book well after it had been placed in the public school libraries evokes the question whether that action might not be an unconstitutional attempt to ‘strangle the free mind at its source.’”

Campbell v. St. Tammany Parish School Board (1995)

In Campbell v. St. Tammany Parish School Board (1995), it was decided that a book removal case in schools is based on the officials’ motivation to remove a particular book. The court observed that, “in light of the special role of the school library as a place where students may freely and voluntarily explore diverse topics, the school board’s non-curricular decision to remove a book well after it had been placed in the public school libraries evokes the question whether that action might not be an unconstitutional attempt to ‘strangle the free mind at its source.’”

Likewise, Case v. Unified School District No. 233 (1995) found the removal of Annie on My Mind unconstitutional because a “substantial motivation” in the removal of the library book was the officials’ disagreement in opinion on the views expressed therein.

All of this doesn’t even touch on internet access and filtering provided by schools. Currently, in Nebraska a bill is being advanced to require databases to remove all obscene material that is “harmful to minors.” Similar bills have already been enacted in Utah and Tennessee.

School officials need to consider students’ First Amendment rights when making decisions about students’ access to books and other forms of information. Any decisions made to restrict access that are based solely in the officials’ disagreement with views expressed in certain materials, rather than on their educational merit, could open those officials up to timely and costly litigation.

Follett Learning, the supplier of books and creator of Destiny, a popular collection management system in school libraries, was developing a technology to allow parents to more easily monitor what their child was checking out at the school library. It would allow parents to block their children from checking out books in certain categories, such as blocking access to LGBTQ+ titles. Follett has since walked this plan back after outrage from the public in response to their announcement.

It’s more important than ever for school librarians to continue their work, even though they are disappearing. There is hope. Learn how to support libraries during increased censorship and reach out to your legislators about this issue to ensure students are still able to exercise their constitutional rights.