Sowing the Wind
Giving every individual parent unchecked veto power over the books a school district may shelve is an invitation to chaos, cultural fracture, and mischief
Oklahoma State Senator Rob Standridge (R) has proposed a bill that will categorically ban from Oklahoma’s public schools books of a certain nature (those related to matters of sex, gender, and associated identities). Recklessly, the bill also gives each school-district parent and legal guardian the power to unilaterally demand the removal of any book deemed inappropriate in this matter, and stipulates that school librarians who fail to comply with such parentally imposed bans after a period of thirty days shall not only be fired but be blackballed for two years. Further still, school districts that fail to comply shall be obligated to pay the aggrieved parent a minimum of ten thousand dollars per day for every day the book remains in inventory after the thirty-day grace period. Below is our open letter in response to this development.
Dear Senator Standridge:
As a senior fellow at the United States Free Speech Union, I write to strongly suggest that—for the sake of everyone involved in Oklahoma’s public-school system (students, teachers, administrators, parents, policymakers)—you withdraw Senate Bill 1142 from consideration. At a stroke, and very much by design, the bill’s Section 1, Subsection B, grants any and all Oklahoma parents and legal guardians veto power over which books may be stacked on the shelves of Oklahoma public-school libraries. The same subsection goes on to detail swift, punitive consequences for noncompliance with parentally imposed bans. In granting such inordinate, indiscriminate power to a vast multitude of individuals, you are sowing the wind, and if this bill goes forward, you will very likely reap the whirlwind.
If the goal were to introduce chaos, cultural fracture, and mischief into Oklahoma’s public-school system, the bill could hardly have been better written. The following passage from Section 1, Subsection A, is clear enough in its intentions, if flatly dubious from a free-speech and an academic-freedom perspective:
No public school district, public charter school, or public school library shall maintain in its inventory or promote 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 . . .
As is ever the case, however, a crucial question involves who gets to define and enforce such terms as primary subject. Were SB 1142 to pass, the powers of definition and enforcement would reside almost limitlessly with any parent or legal guardian who has a child in Oklahoma’s public-school system—no matter the parent or legal guardian’s intention or degree of sincerity. Leaving aside the merit of banning such books in the first place, this again is an invitation to chaos and mischief.
Taking matters from a free-speech and an academic-freedom perspective, such books should no more be subject to categorical bans than they should be to quasi-mandates that they be shelved in public-school libraries owing to the assertion by some that their presence promotes better mental health among vulnerable youths (read: members or potential members of the LGBTQ+ student population). Libraries are not mental-health units. Schools have nurses and counselors to deal with mental-health matters on an individual basis, and those nurses and counselors, contra SB 1142, should absolutely be allowed to keep any pertinent literature in inventory, including—if they deem it necessary—literature on “sex, sexual preferences, sexual activity, sexual perversion, sex-based classifications, sexual identity, or gender identity.”
Ideally, public-school libraries are neutral repositories of information. More realistically, being necessarily modest in scale, they are repositories of a limited subset of available information, a subset arrived at by a combination of community/academic standards and democratic due process (i.e., regularly scheduled school-board elections), with representative government (i.e., school boards) being a necessarily circumscribed expression of the community’s standards. However, the only due process outlined in SB 1142 involves the punitive enforcement of individual parental whim. By making each parent or legal guardian a judge and jury unto him- or herself, the bill subverts both community and standards.
Section 1, subsection A, goes on to propose banning “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.” SB 1142 would seem to empower any individual parent or legal guardian to define reasonable on his or her own terms, thereby allowing such parents, for example, to have the works of Tulsa’s own Susan Eloise (S. E.) Hinton removed from the shelves of their child’s school library.
Hinton’s justly enduring young-adult novels (which include 1967’s The Outsiders; 1971’s That Was Then, This Is Now; and 1975’s Rumble Fish) don’t “make as their primary subject the study of sex” etc. Rather, among other subjects that a “reasonable parent” might consider insalubrious, their primary subjects are arguably—if superficially—juvenile delinquency, crime, knife and gun violence, and the abuse of everything from cigarettes and alcohol to marijuana, heroin, and LSD. But for those seeking to be offended and looking to activate an SB 1142 claim, there is sex as well.
In The Outsiders, we learn that the girlfriend of a beloved and sympathetic sixteen-year-old character has gotten pregnant—by another boy. In That Was Then, This Is Now, we find teenagers flipping through “skin mags” at a drugstore, and a drunken school-age bride bitterly confessing to getting married only because she thought she was pregnant, and because (among other things) she wanted to escape her lecherous stepfather. In Rumble Fish, the three main characters—drunk, underaged, two of them only fourteen—go to an adult (i.e., porno) movie theater on the opposite side of town, where one of the youngsters has an odd if unspecified encounter in the theater’s bathroom.
By leaving reasonable to be defined by the offended (or even by the mock offended), SB 1142, as written, would allow for the swift removal of S. E. Hinton’s books from the shelves of Oklahoma public-school libraries, and would stipulate punitive damages for any librarians and school districts that failed to promptly comply with the parentally imposed ban. I hope you agree that this would be a lamentable outcome for everyone. What you may have a harder time agreeing with is that this outcome would be predicated on the very notion that school libraries are quasi-mental-health units, from which insalubrious material (however loosely defined) must be purged. This notion, of course, also undergirds the related and often opposing assertion that certain materials, sometimes the selfsame materials, should—and possibly must—be kept in inventory, and for the very same reason: because students’ mental and moral health supposedly depends on it.
Therefore, the logic that SB 1142 attempts to bring to bear is the very same logic that some of the bill’s most ardent critics will use to oppose it. In that regard, the logic is self-canceling, and it makes the unfortunate school library the neutral site (and victim) of a battle between competing factions, each of which hopes to press-gang the library into service for the faction’s cause.
S. E. Hinton’s books, of course, are not about juvenile delinquency, or switchblades, or booze, or sex, or drugs, or violence (plentiful as such matters are among their pages). Rather, they are about friendships and family relationships and the strains thereof, matters of class, difficult choices and their consequences, elements of grace amid the unbidden. They are social novels that, incidentally, took great strides toward humanizing what we now call “the white working class,” and they did so at a time—much like our own—when that demographic was in a period of cultural disfavor.
Anybody, regardless of class or color, who reads those novels as a child (or even as an adult) can hardly fail to have his or her sense of humanity expanded. What a loss if today’s school kids in Oklahoma were denied that opportunity because your bill allowed freelancing parental censors to have the books removed from the shelves on threat of government-enforced job loss and financial penalty. Hinton’s novels are but one, Oklahoma-rooted example of all that would be put in jeopardy were SB 1142 to go into effect.
This is not good government. This is not small government. This is not government in accordance with constitutional principles or anything resembling due process. If anything, SB 1142 is a top-down travesty of “local” government, making each and every parent and legal guardian a sovereign censor who (with the force of punishment supplied by the state) can declare, in essence, “L’état, c’est moi.”
SB 1142 should be withdrawn from consideration immediately, before Oklahomans of whatever political or cultural stripe are made to suffer no less from its intended consequences than from its unintended consequences.
Senior Fellow, the United States Free Speech Union