ACLU Fights School Censorship of Gay-Themed Books

MILWAUKEE--The American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin said today that it may take legal action if a local school district does not reconsider its decision to ban four books on gay issues from the shelves of the Barron High School Library.

The district acted after receiving a citizen complaint about "Baby Be-Bop" by Francesca Lia Block and "When Someone You Know is Gay" by Susan and Daniel Cohen. In response, District Administrator Vita Sherry ordered the removal of the books. The School Board then ordered the removal of two additional books, "Two Teenagers in Twenty" by Ann Heron and "The Drowning of Stephan Jones" by Betty Greene. All of the removed books deal with gay themes.

"Too many school administrators think any mention of lesbians and gay men in school is "dangerous" these days," said Matthew Coles, Director of the National ACLU's Lesbian and Gay Rights Project. "Today we are facing a virtual epidemic of anti-gay intolerance and violence, much of it in high schools."

"The only Œdanger'" Coles added, "is the sorry spectacle of an educational institution purging its library of any mention of lesbians and gay men. You don't fight ignorance with ignorance."

Chris Ahmuty, Executive Director of the ACLU of Wisconsin, said the ACLU is investigating to determine whether or not the district has violated students' right to read as established by the First Amendment, and whether the district is acting in a discriminatory fashion against gay and lesbian students contrary to Wisconsin law.

"The ACLU agrees that the District and the School Board have a legitimate role in promoting the values of its community through the curriculum," said Christopher Ahmuty, Executive Director of the ACLU of Wisconsin. "But it may not promote its values by suppressing certain viewpoints or favoring one religious view over another."

"We are troubled by the district's apparent anti-gay and sectarian motivation in removing these books from the school library," he added.

The ACLU of Wisconsin has already received a reply to its initial public records request and has filed another in anticipation of a legal challenge.

According to a memorandum to the school's Reconsideration Committee obtained by the ACLU, School District Administrator Vita Sherry found one book, "When Someone You Know is Gay," to contain "a dangerous viewpoint."

"The information in Chapter 6," Sherry wrote, "would, I believe, lead them [students] to think that they are free to interpret the biblical references in any way they wish. I believe this is a dangerous viewpoint, although I recognize that it seems to be a rather popular one at this time. This viewpoint does a disservice to Barron's religious community, and I cannot support it."

That viewpoint itself may be unconstitutional, Ahmuty said. "School libraries should reflect a diversity of viewpoints. As the U.S. Supreme Court has said, local school boards may not remove books from school libraries simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books and seek by their removal to 'prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion.'"

"We cannot pretend there are no gays/lesbians in Barron High School," Sherry's memo continued. "We must provide support for those students who are dealing with these issues."

The School Board has asked its Policy and Personnel Committee to review the district's library materials selection policy. Complaints on three other books, including John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men are awaiting that review.

Ahmuty said that other books -- and the integrity of selection process itself -- may be put in jeopardy by the district's questionable motivation. "Unfortunately," he said, "whatever concern the district may have for these students is rendered meaningless by their actions."

The ACLU of Wisconsin is a citizen organization dedicated to preserving the rights of all Wisconsin residents. It is a state affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union.

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