Friday, October 3, 2008

Evangelicals claim pro-gay "book-banning"

Anti-gay evangelicals have scored a media coup with a Washington Post article titled "Banned Books, Chapter 2," about efforts to donate books critical of marriage equality and advocating "reparative therapy" to a Fairfax County, VA high school library:
More than 40 students, many wearing black T-shirts stamped with the words "Closing Books Shuts Out Ideas," said they tried to donate more than 100 books about homosexuality to more than a dozen high school libraries in the past year. The initiative, organized by Colorado Springs-based Focus on the Family. was intended to add a conservative Christian perspective to shelves that the students said are stocked with "pro-gay" books.
What's remarkable about this story is that this group has succeeded in framing the schools' refusal of donated books as "book-banning." "Book-banning" means forbidding access to books, and in the context of libraries it ordinarily means removing them from the shelves because some people object to them. It ordinarily does not mean refusing to put on the shelves any book that someone wants there. If that is "book-banning," then a library must accept any book anyone donates to them.

It may surprise you to learn that the Supreme Court has never definitively determined when decisions by libraries about their collections are limited by the First Amendment. As conservative scholar Eugene Volokh noted in a recent post (inspired by the Palin library controversy), the leading case is Island Trees Union Free School District v. Pico (1982). In that case the Court fractured over a library's removal of several books, with no majority opinion. To simplify, four justices took the First Amendment limited content-based decisions to remove books, but not decisions to acquire books. Four justices took the view that neither kind of decision is subject to First Amendment scrutiny. And the late Justice White declined to take a position on the issue, saying it wasn't necessary to decide the case. (The court fractured similarly in a 2003 case regarding library internet access.)

It's not clear whether where today's justices would come down on library removal decisions, but it seems pretty clear to me that they would rejected searching scrutiny of acquisition decisions, for reasons Justice Breyer stated in 2003:
There is only so much money and so much shelf space, and the necessity to choose some material and reject the rest justifies the effort to be selective with an eye to demand, quality, and the object of maintaining the library as a place of civilized enquiry by widely different sorts of people.
Fairfax County defended its decision on the grounds that the books failed to met content-neutral acquisitions standards -- having two positive reviews in a recognized journal -- and "were heavy on scripture but light on research." Even where books are donated, libraries must still expend resources to catalogue and shelve, and of course shelf space is still used. If the library had to accept any book Focus on the Family wanted it to carry, its shelves could soon be crowded by religious tracts, with precious little room for science or literature. Advocacy groups might enter a library donations arms race.

All of which explains why the folks complaining about "book-banning" in Fairfax County are not invoking the First Amendment or threatening legal action; this is a publicity exercise, not a serious dispute.

Also - do high school students check out books from school libraries? I thought my high school was pretty well-funded, but its small library had little to offer next to my neighborhood branch. It may be that school libraries have greater symbolic than real importance as sources of information and ideas for youth.

1 comment:

BlackTsunami said...

I am sorry but this is NOT censorship.

I’m usually not one for censorship but I am for standards. And I have a hard time believing that anything put out about the lgbt community by the anti-gay industry or their allies belong in a public library without extreme scrutiny on its credibility.

The anti-gay industry has a track record of relying bad research (Paul Cameron) or distorting legitimate research (i.e. Elizabeth Saewyc, Robert Spitzer, Patrick Letellier, Robert Garafalo, Carol Gilligan, Lisa Waldner, Joanne Hall, Francis Collins, etc. )

And this track record of lies should not be ignored simply because the anti-gay industry was able to find enough guillible students and their parents to try and play a game of semantics.

I don’t think a book should be included in a library’s selection simply because a group holds a press conference and sidesteps the issues of accuracy by appealing to emotions and religious beliefs

When choosing books, libraries should always adhere to high standards and the highest of all of these are veracity, or truth.