Combating Censorship in Education

In December 2023, a police officer showed up to search a Great Barrington, Massachusetts, middle school classroom and questioned a teacher over reports of the presence of an LGBTQ+ book: Gender Queer, by Maia Kobabe. Even at a time of widespread attempts to ban books across the country, it was shocking to learn that the police had been called – and responded – based on the fear that a book (an award-winning, coming-of-age memoir from a nonbinary author) might be found in a classroom bookshelf for older teens in Massachusetts.

Four teens - one white girl, two black girls, and one black boy - all gathered around a book in a library.

GLAD quickly weighed in with our partner, the ACLU of Massachusetts, condemning this unwarranted and inappropriate intrusion into the classroom. In a letter to the Berkshire County District Attorney and Great Barrington Chief of Police, we made our message clear: law enforcement has no place policing educational material. The letter also underscored the importance of protecting the constitutional right to learn free of censorship.

School districts have established ways for parents and caretakers to challenge books, so they can be reviewed in a less contentious and more objective way. Calling the police to search classrooms and identify students who have requested books is not part of that procedure.

The attempted censoring of Gender Queer is far from an isolated incident. Pressure campaigns to ban books have popped up in state legislatures and school communities around the country, and this coordinated attack is not just on LGBTQ+ representation. According to the American Library Association (ALA), many of the eleven most challenged books of 2023 were by authors of color. Nine of the eleven titles were from Black, Indigenous, and other people of color, LGBTQ+ people, or people with multiple marginalized identities.

School libraries are the most accessible place for young people to find books where they can learn about themselves and the world – something that can be especially true in rural areas.  As one of the authors who was on the 2022 ALA challenged book list, Ashley Hope Perez, told the Dallas Morning News, “Out of Darkness [the story of a Mexican American girl and an African American boy’s love affair in 1930s Texas] was removed from the district’s high school library shelves, and now, students can read it only by request, with parent permission. As an English teacher and mother, I know that if teens can’t find a book on the shelves, they likely will never read it. This loss of access undermines the efforts of librarians and teachers to support students’ right to education and full literacy.”

Last fall, together with Lambda Legal and NCLR, we filed an amicus brief in Mahmoud v. McKnight, pending in the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. We shared our perspective and expertise in support of a Maryland school district that introduced storybooks with LGBTQ+ characters into the language arts curriculum. Our brief, filed on behalf of parents, students, educators, civil rights advocates, and health care and suicide prevention service providers, provided evidence of an inclusive curriculum’s importance in creating a welcoming, respectful school climate for all students. Such climates are especially important for LGBTQ+ students, students of color, and others who face a heightened risk of bullying. And positive school climates create better educational outcomes for all students.

Polly Crozier (grey suit), Shaplaie Brooks (far right), and Carmen Paulino (yellow shirt).
GLAD Director of Family Advocacy Polly Crozier with other youth advocates Shaplaie Brooks, Carmen Paulino.

Despite robust nondiscrimination protections in certain states, politicians and conservative groups have been actively working to undermine public education to exclude LGBTQ+ people, thereby threatening the rights of all students. This climate of hostility has permeated communities across the country, including within progressive-leaning states. Over the past two years, GLAD and the ACLU have been compelled to notify school districts across Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine of the constitutional prohibition on viewpoint discrimination, to ensure all students have the right to access reading materials. Students must be allowed to engage with reading material that reflects their life experiences and the experiences of others. School personnel must resist the alarming surge of attempted book bans.

We can’t know why the staff person who called the police in Great Barrington, MA, took that step. They may have acted out of fear or been emboldened by the lengths to which other areas of the country are going to remove LGBTQ+ people and families from classroom discussions and libraries.

For whatever reasons, censorship attempts like this will continue to arise, but they also spark conversations about the importance of diverse representation in our schools. By standing firm in our commitment to uphold the constitutional right to learn free of censorship, we send a powerful message: that every student deserves access to literature that reflects their identities and experiences. By remaining vigilant and unwavering in our dedication to equality, we can create a future where all young people feel seen, valued, and empowered to learn and grow.

Good News!

On April 19, the Biden Administration released final Title IX rules affirming nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ+ students. GLAD and our partner organizations look forward to working with schools and school districts to ensure policies and practices comply with federal law before the August 1 deadline.

This story was originally published in the Summer 2024 GLAD Briefs newsletter. Read more.