I am saddened to report that the Devilishly funny and charming Maureen Johnson is the latest of our fellow-author-compadres to get whacked by the great Book Ban Whiffle Bat. Please read her post to find out how and why her lovely novel, The Bermudez Triangle, has been yanked from the shelves of a school library in Bartlesville, Oklahoma.
I call it the Book Ban Whiffle Bat for this reason: It looks like a bat; it swings like a bat, but it's full of air, people. There's no substance to it.
And why is there no substance? Because, We the People are in America here; we have First Amendment rights and civil rights and separation of church and state. It's Not Okay to ban books from school libraries. The law says so, the courts say so. This horse left the barn a long, long time ago, when the framers of the ol' Constitution whacked it on the rump and said Run! Carrots thataway!
And yet. Sometimes, people — in the case of Maureen's book, it was a mother of a high school student — make the MISTAKE (I will call it a mistake, because that's what it is) of confusing their own private choices and beliefs — their personal rules — with matters of law. The Big Rules, let us call them. The ones we play by as a nation.
This is definitely a mistake. Because if I say my kid can't watch Family Guy, that's something different than saying Family Guy is (or should be) against the law for anybody to watch. I'm allowed to tell my kid he can't watch Family Guy. Family Guy may be against my personal rules (it's not; by the way, I think it's frikkin' hilarious). It may be against the rules I set for my kid. But it sure isn't against the law, and I can't have the show taken off the air just because I personally don't want to watch it.
I am, myself, a vegetarian. Sirloin steak is against my personal rules. But it isn't against the law; nor should it be.
So: Mistaken Mom says that she does not want her kid reading a book with (gasp!) homosexuals in it. Think what you will about this; it's Mistaken Mom's homophobic opinion and her kid is probably watching Queer as Folk at a friend's house and planning to move to Chelsea after graduation; these things have a way of evening themselves out. But Mistaken Mom, being unclear about which are personal rules and which are Big Rules, writes a letter to the school saying the book with homosexuals in it that's against her personal rules must be REMOVED FROM THE LIBRARY. Banned, verboten, locked away where the sun don't shine.
Big deal, you say. Mistaken Mom wrote a letter she shouldn't have written. She mixed up her personal rules with the Big Rules, the laws everybody has to follow. Waste of a piece of paper and a stamp, pass the chips.
But no. It didn't end there. Mistaken Mom made what you might call a Gateway Mistake; it led to a bigger and MUCH more serious mistake, which was this: The school caved. The Bermudez Triangle has been pulled from the library. Now we got trouble, because the school is not a person with personal rules. It is a public institution, and it has to play by the Big Rules. It Has To.
And the Big Rules say that book banning violates the First Amendment rights of students. Period.
Remember the Hernando Ban-do? The school attorney for Hernando County, Florida, wisely reminded the school board there what the consequences would be should they decide to mess with the Big Rules:
“School attorney Paul Carland advised school board members before the Tuesday night vote to consider whether rejecting the nine books would tread on students’ civil rights...
...Carland reminded school board members of two court cases in which school books were rejected. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Board of Education, Island Trees School District v. Pico in 1982. The high court determined that students’ First Amendment rights are “directly and sharply implicated” if a book is removed from a school’s library.
Carland also brought up how the removal of a book in the Dade County school district led to a federal court decision. In that case, the book “Vamos a Cuba” or “A Visit to Cuba” was considered inappropriate for young readers. Some believed the book had inaccuracies or omissions about the communist country.
The Dade County school board voted to remove the books and was sued by the American Civil Liberties Union. The Miami chapter of the ACLU won the case in federal court after a swift trial...”
Mistaken Mom mouthed off, and that's her right as an Ammurrican. Mistaken School Officials have acted in an unlawful way, and serious consequences can rightly rain down upon their heads.
Wake up, School Officials! Know the law, know your students' rights. Don't subject your school district to costly lawsuits that only prove over and over again what we as a nation have known for a couple of centuries now: This is America. Land of the free, home of the brave, freedom of speech, separation of church and state. Teens have civil rights too. Gay teens, let it be said, have civil rights.
There are other ways of placating a grumpy parent than messing with the Big Rules of our country and digging your school deep, deep into a hole of We Done Wrong. I disagree heartily with what Mistaken Mom says, but I defend just as heartily her right to say it. You people who run the schools, though — you really should know better. AP American History, anyone?