This essay won the $1,000 first prize in the 2023 Connecticut Foundation for Open Government’s Forrest Palmer High School Essay Contest. Students were asked to write essays addressing one of three timely First Amendment issues: book bans in schools, hate speech on campuses, and misinformation on social media.
In the last two years, there has been a drastic rise in school boards removing books containing controversial themes from school libraries, usually at the behest of outspoken conservative members.
Some worry that this may transform America into a majoritarian theocracy and have called for policies that would limit the power of school boards to remove controversial books from their curriculums and libraries. To examine why such reactions are misguided, let us begin in Dearborn, Michigan, America’s most Muslim city per capita.
On Monday, October 10, 2022, hundreds of protesters swarmed a meeting of Dearborn’s school board. They were demanding that the school board remove six books that had been placed under review by the school board, most of which contained LGBTQ characters, from the district’s libraries.
If the protester’s objection had merely been that their children might have been able to obtain books they disapproved of through the school library, the school district’s existing policy, which allowed parents to restrict library access to their children, would have been sufficient.
If their objection was merely that other students might read the books, their outrage would still be illogical. Students could still purchase the books on their own.
If anything, their protests would only publicize the controversial books and make students more likely to read them.
Yet still, they protested.
They protested because school libraries have a second implication: providing the official approval of the government to students reading any book they contain. We cannot fully separate the books included in our public school libraries and curricula from the moral issue of their contents.
No matter how neutrally a book is portrayed within a library or a classroom, its mere inclusion in the public school system represents a belief on the part of a local government that a book is, at the very least, acceptable for its children to read.
Ultimately, we all believe that not every book deserves this sanction: few would suggest that graphic pornography should be included in school libraries or taught in classes. But to the protesters in Dearborn, graphic books about gay relationships, such as “This Book is Gay,” which includes a diagram explaining how to have gay sex were as offensive as pornography.
Despite the heightened public and media attention, the Dearborn school board followed its normal review process for a controversial book. In its deliberations, it heard arguments from two sharply contrasting groups: LGBTQ activists and Muslim fundamentalists. In the end, two books were deemed inappropriate and pulled from libraries, two books were retained, and two remain under review.
In other words, disparate members of a local community gave their input on what values they believed deserved their community’s acceptance, and their representatives ultimately made a decision that reflected their concerns.
Even amidst the chaos, the book selection process played out in Dearborn as it should in school districts across the country: teachers selected books, passionate citizens voiced their concerns about certain chosen books at school board meetings, and their representatives ultimately made a reasoned decision on their behalf.
As philosopher Michael Sandel expresses, what a pluralist democracy requires is a “politics of moral engagement.” We should recognize the recent controversies over the books included in our public school curriculums and libraries for what they are: valuable debates over what moral values our communities should accept. We should engage with these debates, not dismiss them as dangerous.
No matter how passionate our beliefs, we should not let our efforts to promote what we believe is best for our children compromise our faith in civil discourse and the democratic process.
Aubrey Niederhoffer is a rising senior at Greenwich High School. He is also the founder of Amalgam Talent, an international recruitment agency that connects American employers to workers in the small African country of eSwatini.