When Accusations Against Books Meet the Actual Law
As we have seen repeatedly over the past two years, it is easy to make accusations against books and librarians. It takes little effort to fill out a materials challenge form alleging that books are obscene or pornographic. Anyone can step up to the microphone at a public meeting and share out-of-context excerpts from award-winning works of literature that help students understand and navigate the world, and maybe help them feel less alone, or offer them some language and concepts they can use to protect themselves.
But what happens when these accusations are evaluated and adjudicated against actual laws that clearly define concepts such as “obscene” and “harmful to minors?” We have at least one recent answer to that question thanks to a decision handed down by Kent County (MI) Circuit Court Judge George Quist. Judge Quist . Quist heard arguments in a lawsuit against Rockford Public Schools filed by “Parents and Taxpayers Against Pornography in Rockford Public Schools.” According to reporting by Michigan Live, plaintiffs argued that these books were “sexually explicit” and “pornographic,” and alleged that Rockford School District administrators were committing a felony by making the books accessible to minors.
The suit sought to ban these fourteen library books:
- “A Court of Mist and Fury” by Sarah J. Maas
- “A Court of Frost and Starlight” by Sarah J. Maas
- “Breathless” by Jennifer Niven
- “Out of Darkness” by Ashley Hope Pérez
- “Crank” by Ellen Hopkins
- “Ask the Passengers” by A. S. King
- “Kite Runner” by Khaled Hosseini
- “All Boys Aren’t Blue” by George M Johnson
- “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe
- “Beyond Magenta” by Susan Kuklin
- “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison
- “Looking for Alaska” by John Green
- “Lawn Boy” by Jonathan Evison
- “Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic” by Alison Bechdel
But on October 25, Quist dismissed the suit noting that, “the Court is compelled by the material facts and applicable law to dismiss Plaintiffs’ complaint” further noting that the books named in the suit do not meet the legal definition of “harmful to minors” because the books as a whole have literary value. In explaining his decision, Quist wrote, “Plaintiffs cannot establish that a reasonable person would not find value in the identified works as a whole. In fact, every book identified by Plaintiffs has either received accolades or been on best-seller lists.”
It is gratifying to see such a clearly stated, unambiguous decision, based on the facts, and grounded in the plain language of the applicable state law. Sharing this story, and other stories of judges striking down book banning and related anti-library or anti-librarian laws at local and state levels can help have a chilling effect on pro-censorship actions by board members, council members, and state legislators. We anticipate that as book challenges and anti-access laws continue to face legal challenges, we will see a growing body of cases that reaffirm the “taken as a whole” and “SLAPS” standards embodied in the state and federal laws across the country.
About Peter Bromberg
Peter has nearly 30 years of experience applying a human-centered approach to the transformation of library services, creating value and positive experiences for people and communities while fostering healthy, equitable, and effective organizational climates. As a library advocate on local, state, and national levels, he coaches and consults with library leaders, boards, and associations to develop effective messaging and build strong community and political support for library funding. As a library director in Salt Lake City, Peter applied an equity lens to board development, operations, and policy development, garnering a Distinguished Service Award from the American Society for Public Administrators (ASPA) for his work in eliminating inequitable barriers to service.
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