Free Speech

Oklahoma Bill Would Effectively Let Any Parent Veto Any Public School Library Book

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Oklahoma SB 1142, introduced by state senator and Majority Whip Rob Standridge, begins (numbering added):

[A.] No public school district, public charter school, or public school library shall maintain in its inventory or promote

[1] books that make as their primary subject the study of sex, sexual preferences, sexual activity, sexual perversion, sex-based classifications, sexual identity, or gender identity or

[2] books that are of a sexual nature that a reasonable parent or legal guardian would want to know of or approve of prior to their child being exposed to it.

Now there is likely no First Amendment problem with a public school district removing books that it sees as unsuitable for children, whether "because it contains offensive language or because it is psychologically or intellectually inappropriate for the age group." In Board of Ed. v. Pico, the Court split 4-4 on whether a public school may remove library books based on the books' viewpoint. (Justice White, who cast the deciding vote, expressly declined to reach that question.) But it seems pretty likely that removing at least some books from school libraries that are seen as too sexual would be constitutional, whether or not you think it's a good idea. (I leave that sort of policy question to our readers to decide on their own, though I'm inclined to be skeptical about such categorical exclusions, especially as to books that really do involve "the study of" important features of human life, and ones that are surely of significance to many adolescents, especially given that millions of Americans' first sexual experiences occur during their high school years.)

Of course you might now be asking, though, just how one would decide such things. Librarians must of course make subjective decisions about this and other matters, if only when they are deciding which books to buy in the first place. But if it's the law that librarians may not buy, and indeed presumably must remove, certain books, then there would have to be a legal standard—and "of a sexual nature that a reasonable parent … would want to know of or approve of prior to their child being exposed to it" is just not a legally well-defined standard.

Rest easy! No librarian or judge or jury would have to apply such a standard, because of the following two paragraphs:

[B.] [1.] The parent or legal guardian of a student who believes a public school district, public charter school, or public school library is maintaining book(s) in violation of subsection A of this section may submit a written request to the school district superintendent or charter school administrator to remove the book(s) from the public school district, public charter school, or public school library.

[2.] The book(s) requested for removal shall be removed from the public school district, public charter school, or public school library within thirty (30) days of receiving the request.

That's right: According to the plain text of the bill, the school official "shall" "remove[]" any book that a parent "believes" is "of a sexual nature that a reasonable parent … would want to know of or approve of prior to their child being exposed to it." So long as a parent writes the superintendent that he or she believes that, say, Romeo & Juliet (teenage sex) or Othello ("beast with two backs") or the Bible (Sodomy etc.) or whatever else fits within subsection A, the school must remove it. (By the way, I not only think there's no Establishment Clause problems with school libraries stocking the Bible, but I think they definitely should, or at least should have before the Bible and so many other books became so easily available and searchable online.)

And, if the school official doesn't accede to the request, the parent can sue the school (that's in subsection C)—for a statutory minimum of $10,000/day that the book is not removed. Plus it gets better:

[B.] [3.] A public school district or public charter school employee tasked with removing a book from a public school district, public charter school, or public school library who does not do so within thirty (30) days of receiving a request shall be dismissed or not reemployed, subject to the provisions of the Teacher Due Process Act of 1990, and the employee shall be prohibited from being employed by a public school district or public charter school for a period of two (2) years. The book shall be removed from the public school district, public charter school, or public school library by a school administrator.

Yes, that's right, it's firing and a two-year public school employment blacklist for you, if you don't promptly accede to the parent's "belie[f]," conveyed in a "written request," that a book is not suitable for the school library.

Thanks to The U.S. Free Speech Union for the pointer.