“Banning books gives us silence when we need speech. It closes our ears when we need to listen. It makes us blind when we need sight.” -Stephen Chbosky
For the past 25 years, Wilkes County Schools have participated in a program called “Battle of the Books.” Battle of the Books encourages reading among students in 3rd through 12th grade by creating and circulating a reading list to parents and students. After reading the books, students compete against one another in a quiz bowl style competition, which tests their knowledge of the books’ authors and content. For example, if a student had to read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, they may be asked in competition, “What is the name of Harry’s owl?” The student would respond with “Rowling; Hedwig.” The most recent booklist can be found here.
Despite its 25-year history, the Wilkes County School Board has decided to cancel the Battle of the Books program after receiving complaints from parents about the content of certain books on the 2022-2023 book list. Once received last spring, these complaints prompted the coaches of the Wilkes County Battle of the Books teams, formed from the various schools in the county, to meet to discuss the parent’s concerns. During the meeting, the coaches decided to continue with the competition, but they requested a revised book list that removed two books. This request was granted; The Shape of Thunder and To Night Owl from Dogfish were removed. For context, The Shape of Thunder is about two middle school children who worked through the grief of a school shooting together. To Night Owl from Dogfish is about two young girls who connect over the Internet and become fast friends by bonding over the fact they are both being raised by two dads. Parents found the topics of same sex parenting and school shootings to be concerning.
Additionally, the separate elementary school program in Wilkes County was cancelled due to parental and local concerns over three books: A Place at the Table, Clean Getaway, and Sal and Gabi Break the Universe. A Place at the Table is about two sixth graders that learn to navigate middle school together while supporting each other: one of them is new to school and had previously attended a small Islamic school and the other sixth grader’s mom is suffering from depression. Clean Getaway is a book about a young boy that goes on a road trip with his grandmother who teaches him, along the way, about race in America. Sal and Gabi Break the Universe is a story about two young friends where one young friend is able to magically open a hole into the universe and pluck anything from it to help them navigate school, bullies, and homework. Here, parents objections focused on magic, mental health, religion and race.
Of note, 2022 is not the first year a request for revised lists had been made by Wilkes County Schools. In 2021, Wilkes County Schools requested, on behalf of the parents, a revised list that removed The Parker Inheritance, another book about preteens learning about the history of race in America through their family history. In response to the cancellation of the Battle of the Books program, a change.org petition was circulated in hopes of reinstating the program; 1,509 signatures were obtained. Despite the petition, however, Battle of the Books is still cancelled in Wilkes County, North Carolina.
Banning Books or Banning Ideologies?
Simply put, banning books is a form of censorship. In fact, historically, it is one of the most widespread forms of censorship in the United States. Banning books in America dates back over 250 years to Colonial America, where religious leaders often banned books and pamphlets that contradicted their religious beliefs or their preaching. Similarly, in the mid-1800s, books and pamphlets centered around anti-slavery were banned in the South.
Bans based on the ideologies beyond religion within books began to proliferate around the 1970s. Types of ideologies people may disagree with are topics and content that contradict their personal views or beliefs, commonly centering on religion and politics. Ideologies are a bigger concept than simply “beliefs.” Ideologies are a “system of ideas.” For example, parents are not upset because they do not believe slavery happened or do not believe that discrimination occurs in society. Parents are not upset because they do not believe school shootings or same sex parenting occurs; they are upset because they do not want their children to be exposed to even the “idea” of such a topic. These books do not just say these topics exist; they create an in depth look into each topic and create a fictional world that seeks to teach a deeper understanding of the system of ideas that create the topic. Thus, when these books are being banned, they are not being banned simply for their topics. They are being banned because parents and adults are uncomfortable with the possibility their children may be exposed to a system of ideas different than their own.
This is unsurprising to the American Library Association, who found concerns that the content of a book may be unsuitable for certain age groups is one of the top three reasons, today, that books are challenged or banned. While banning books may not be a new issue, the debate surrounding it rages on, highlighting a potential constitutional concern. The concern specifically lies within the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.
A Historical Analysis of First Amendment Case Law Specific to Schools
In the 1969 United States Supreme Court case Tinker v. Des Moines School Dist., a group of students planned to attend school wearing armbands to publicly show their support of a truce in the Vietnam War. When the school board found out, the board threatened to suspend any student that showed up in the armband. As promised, students who wore the armband were sent home and suspended. The Court ultimately concluded local school boards may not exercise their broad discretion in managing schools beyond the confines of the First Amendment. Indeed, the Court noted, the First Amendment protects even a student’s right to free speech in the classroom.
Thirteen years later, in 1982, the United States Supreme Court decided yet another case regarding a First Amendment analysis of a school board’s decision: Board of Ed., Island Trees Union Free School Dist. No 26 v. Pico. In this case, a group of high school students brought a First Amendment suit against their local school board in response to the school board’s actions in banning books from their school libraries. The school board explained their reasoning for banning these books was because the books went against American and religious beliefs. The Court responded to this explanation with the conclusion that while school boards might have broad discretion in deciding the curriculum of their schools, they cannot do so in a manner that is “narrowly partisan or political.” Specifically, the Court looked towards the school board’s “motivation” when deciding whether the school board had abused their discretion. The Court reasoned that if the motivation behind the school board’s decision was based solely on their disapproval of topics relating to political or religious matters, they would have violated the First Amendment.
A Student’s Right to Receive Ideas
The Court’s decision in Pico recognizes a student’s implicit right to “receive ideas” through reading books. Indeed, the decision acknowledges that books gives student the opportunity to build their own understanding of their beliefs and provide a base for exercising their own rights of “speech, press and political freedom.”
James Madison wrote, “A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” The Supreme Court case, First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti supports Madison in reiterating the core purpose of the First Amendment: “to foster individual self-expression and afford public access to discussion, debate, and the dissemination of information and ideas.”
What Does this Mean for Wilkes County?
The facts of what transpired within Wilkes County, North Carolina are slightly different from the facts in Pico, as banning a program is factually different than banning a book. However, banning an entire program on the basis of the contents of the books involved in the program may still create a constitutional argument that the students’ First Amendment rights are being violated. Further, the school system has taken actions in the past to have books removed from the Battle of the Books list because parents did not agree with the content within the books.
As a reminder, the Court in Pico looked at the school board’s “motivation.” Judicial focus upon a school board’s intent is still the test, some forty years after the Pico decision. A court charged with reviewing the Wilkes County School Board’s actions would be bound by the same intent precedent. Thus, the Court would likely start with a review of the parental concerns, use that review as a starting point for the Wilkes County school board’s motivation in cancelling the Battle of the Books program, then dig deeper into determining whether those concerns were the only motivation.