More than one year has passed since the School District of Osceola County removed five books from its libraries for review after several community members complained about them at a school board meeting. Now, without any public explanation — and in defiance of its own review committee’s decision — the district has permanently removed the books from its collection.
FIRE first wrote Osceola County in January, explaining that its process for reviewing the books violated district policy and likely the First Amendment. The district’s promised response to our letter never came, so we followed up again in February.
FIRE then learned the district had quietly decided to permanently remove the books — including “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” “Looking for Alaska,” “Gender Queer,” and “Out of Darkness” — from all of its libraries.
That’s why the principle of viewpoint neutrality is so important — it protects books from ideologically driven purges coming from either side of the political spectrum.
So today FIRE sent another letter to Osceola County. Again, we called on the district to explain its willful disregard of its policies and the First Amendment. As we told Superintendent Debra Pace, the “review process was tainted from the start”:
Nobody filed a formal challenge to any of the books as required by district policy. Nevertheless, you formed an ad hoc committee to review the books. After the committee voted in September 2022 to retain the books in at least some school libraries, the books nevertheless remained off all library shelves. The school board assumed the authority to decide whether to restore the books—despite Chair Terry Castillo admitting the board was violating district policy by doing so, as “not one single parent” appealed the committee’s decision.
The argument here isn’t that parents and local residents should never be able to challenge the inclusion of certain books in school libraries. It’s that when schools review these challenges, they must adhere to established, impartial procedures and objective criteria that ensure decisions rest on legitimate educational factors — not the personal whims of school officials or of a vocal minority of community members that have their ear.
Schools certainly have discretion to determine the content of their libraries, but as Supreme Court Justice William Brennan wrote for the plurality in Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District No. 26 v. Pico, “that discretion may not be exercised in a narrowly partisan or political manner.” Justice Harry Blackmun’s concurring opinion likewise explains that school authorities “may not remove books or the purpose of restricting access to the political ideas or social perspectives discussed in them, when that action is motivated simply by the officials’ disapproval of the ideas involved.”
School districts have broad authority over curriculum. But, as Justice Brennan explained, curricular and library materials differ in important ways. Unlike textbooks and assigned readings in class, the “selection of books from these libraries is entirely a matter of free choice; the libraries afford [students] an opportunity at self-education and individual enrichment that is wholly optional.”
Lower courts have applied this reasoning in ordering school districts to reshelve or lift restrictions on library books when those restrictions were motivated by school officials’ disapproval of the books’ ideas. In 2003’s Counts v. Cedarville School District, for example, a federal district court in Arkansas found that school board members unconstitutionally restricted access to “Harry Potter” books to shield students from ideas about “witchcraft” and “the occult.”
Likewise, some complaints about the challenged Osceola County school library books — including criticism of “transgenderism” and a comment that the board should “stop grooming children to think they can change their gender” — are rooted in opposition to the books’ alleged themes or ideas. If Osceola County has reasons to remove the challenged books that actually concern their educational suitability, those reasons need to emerge from the review process mandated by district policy. Simple as that.
Those who support today’s ideologically motivated book removals should be careful what they wish for. The power to make these decisions may not always reside with individuals who share their political worldview. That’s why the principle of viewpoint neutrality is so important — it protects books from ideologically driven purges coming from either side of the political spectrum. It’s why schools also can’t, for example, ban “To Kill a Mockingbird” from libraries because of complaints that it promotes the “white savior myth.” Library shelves would have lots of empty space if schools removed all books that contain an idea that some school official or community member doesn’t like. And students — our future leaders — would be far worse off for it.
Osceola County owes its students, its staff, and the public an explanation for its failure to adhere to its own policies and constitutional obligations. FIRE has asked the district to provide that explanation by June 5.
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