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Wherefore art thou, Romeo? South Carolina’s new, one-size-fits-all library regulations will restrict access to the classics

New regulations ban all books including any description of ‘sexual conduct’ for all students, regardless of the book’s educational value or the student’s age. 
Shelf of books with a locked chain in front of it

Yesterday, the South Carolina State Board of Education imposed new regulations requiring the removal of all books that include any description of “sexual conduct” from every public school library in the state. 

This means that classic literary works like “Romeo and Juliet,” “The Canterbury Tales,” and “Ulysses” could be taken off the shelves, raising First Amendment concerns.

Blanket bans like this one in South Carolina impose one-size-fits-all, top-down mandates that require school district administrators to review library books without analyzing whether the specific content is suitable for specific age groups and grade levels. 

While the regulations provide a process to determine whether or not books are age- and developmentally appropriate, they state that material is categorically inappropriate “for any age or age group of children if it includes descriptions or visual depictions of ‘sexual conduct.’” That means schools have to ban 18-year-old high school seniors from encountering any library books that describe sex, which could include staples of high school reading lists like “Brave New World,” “The Color Purple,” and “1984.” 

South Carolina should ditch its categorical ban and instead take an individualized, contextual approach when reviewing any book’s suitability for a specific set of students. 

Public schools and school district administrators have substantial discretion to decide what they place on library shelves. They weigh factors like age suitability, literary merit, and the book’s potential contribution to students’ education when evaluating whether a library book should be available to students. But the First Amendment prevents the government from forcing a public school library’s book removal decisions to be made based on hostility to certain ideas or viewpoints, or on “narrow partisan or political” considerations. That’s because, as a Supreme Court plurality explained in Board of Education v. Pico, students’ constitutional rights are “directly and sharply implicated by the removal of books from the shelves of a school library” because the First Amendment protects the “right to receive information and ideas.” 

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South Carolina’s new regulation is similar to an Iowa law that a federal court recently ruled likely violates the First Amendment. By removing for all age groups all books that describe sexual conduct, South Carolina’s state-wide blanket ban prohibits a vast range of books regardless of age appropriateness and abandons the individual consideration of books by local decisionmakers. Instead of holistically evaluating books for different age groups based on legitimate factors like age appropriateness and literary merit, public school district boards must now automatically remove from every library every book that depicts “sexual conduct” — a term which is too vaguely defined to provide guidance on what is and is not permitted. Do the double entendres contained in Shakespeare’s works count? What about descriptions of love affairs in the old English of “The Canterbury Tales”?

As we’ve seen in other states like Florida and Iowa, categorical bans on subject matter — whether it’s sex, violence, drug use, or any other potentially controversial topic — can lead to district administrators excluding history books and classic novels that Americans have read in school classrooms for more than a hundred years.

South Carolina should ditch its categorical ban and instead take an individualized, contextual approach when reviewing any book’s suitability for a specific set of students. By not doing so, South Carolina’s law is not only in tension with the Supreme Court’s decision in Pico and the principles of free expression codified in the First Amendment, but also restricts students’ ability to explore the world of ideas outside of the classroom.  

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