The ACLU of Southern California recently filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of two students at Orangeview Junior High School whose free-speech rights are being violated by censorship of school library books by the Anaheim Union High School District.
Ten books were removed by District officials from the Orangeview library in early September 2000, and have been kept in the District's offices ever since, despite the efforts of Orangeview's librarians to get the books back. The books are a series of biographies, written for youth 14 years old and up, entitled "Lives of Notable Gay Men and Lesbians." The subjects of the books include tennis player Martina Navratilova, economist John Maynard Keynes, and writers Willa Cather and James Baldwin.
"We all know why these books have been banned," said Martha Matthews, ACLU of Southern California's Bohnett Attorney, a staff attorney position funded by Internet innovator and philanthropist David Bohnett to advance lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) civil rights. "The books were banned because the words gay and lesbian appear on the front cover. The books were banned because they had a positive statement to make to kids about gay and lesbian people, because gay or lesbian people, in the eyes of some, cannot possibly be role models or heroes. The books were banned, in short, because of deep-seated prejudice."
"This is a very clear case of viewpoint-based censorship, which is unconstitutional," said Matthews. "At its core, this kind of suppression is anti-democratic and antithetical to the mission of a school and, particularly, of a school library, which is to encourage inquiry and broaden minds. This kind of censorship is offensive, cowardly, and damaging to students."
The Orangeview library has over fifteen other series of biographies, profiling the lives and achievements of other groups such as African-Americans, Latinos and Latinas, Asian-Americans, women, and persons with disabilities. Only the books about famous gay and lesbian persons were removed from the library and singled out for scrutiny by District officials.
"I have an older brother in high school, who is gay, said plaintiff Daniel Doe [a pseudonym], "I think that having books in the library about famous people who are gay or lesbian would help me and other students learn that gay people can be successful in life, and learn not to be prejudiced."
Public school students have rights under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and the California Constitution. Schools can ensure that library books are age-appropriate and have educational value. But they cannot ban books because of disapproval of the viewpoints or ideas expressed in the books ˆ such as the idea that gay and lesbian persons have made important contributions to the arts, sciences, and literature.
Also, under California law, schools cannot discriminate against students, or tolerate student-on-student harassment, on the basis of actual or perceived sexual orientation. Removing books that provide positive gay and lesbian role models ˆ even though the library has many books about famous people from other minority groups ˆ also violates this anti-discrimination law.
"Unfortunately," said Orangeview librarian Chris Enterline. "I have heard Orangeview students using epithets such as 'faggot' as insults and using the expression, 'that's so gay,' to imply that an idea or action is foolish or ridiculous. Books such as the series, 'Lives of Notable Gay Men and Lesbians,' can play an important role in helping to create a school environment in which homophobia, like racism and other biases, is addressed and challenged."
Gay-and lesbian-themed books frequently inspire censors. According to the American Library Association, two books for children about gay and lesbian families are among the top ten books banned in the United States. In 1999, there were about 500 attempts to remove books from libraries on the grounds that they 'promoted homosexuality.'