Censorship in schools: Does the Nampa School District’s book ban violate free speech?

Illustration by Alieha Dryden

The Nampa School District Board of Trustees voted in May to permanently ban 22 books from the district’s libraries due to “pornography or sexually explicit content,” although a majority of these books also contain LGBTQ+ and other minority characters.

This decision came after parents complained to the school district about certain books being available at school libraries, after which the school district quickly removed the books from all of their shelves.

Not all parents and students were in agreement, however, as Nampa’s action led to a community-wide debate about what authority schools should have to censor their classrooms and libraries and how censorship impacts schools’ ability to properly educate their students. 

Controversy over the book ban

The controversy following this book ban wasn’t inherently about the banning of books itself, but rather that the Nampa school district didn’t follow the proper channels or make a justification for why these books needed to be removed from schools. 

“There was a procedure in place to review those books if necessary and the board is diverting procedures to restrict students’ access to entitled information,” said Shiva Rajbhandari, a Boise High School senior who, in September, became the first student to win a trustee seat on the Boise School District School Board. 

The original list of banned books included 25 titles. Educators in the district recommended at least six of those books be removed from the list because they contained “no explicit content.” However, the board banned every book except those found to already be unavailable in their schools.

“I think one of the things that is getting missed in this conversation is that libraries have processes for handling challenges,” said Michelle Armstrong, associate dean of Albertsons Library at Boise State University. “The reality is that librarians navigate these questions all the time … [but] when that process is skipped, that’s when censorship truly happens.”

Since the ban, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Idaho, among other individuals and organizations, have been pushing for the Nampa School District to release documents explaining how the board reached the decision to remove these books.

The ACLU of Idaho sent an official public records request to the school district in July 2022. Prior to releasing said documents, the school board held a closed meeting on July 25 to determine which records are exempt from disclosure.

“The documents we’ve reviewed make clear that the Nampa School Board banned a number of books without any justification,” Colleen Smith, cooperating attorney for ACLU of Idaho, said in a press release. “The board’s assertion that students should be denied access to these books because they are ‘pornographic’ is meritless.”

Having clear justification for banning any given book from a public school is essential to ensuring that free speech is upheld. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Board of Education Island Trees Union School District v. Pico (1982) that “local school boards may not remove books from school library shelves simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books, even if those ideas are offensive, disagreeable or uncomfortable.”

Censoring diverse stories

Some may view the ideas presented in many of the books banned by Nampa as “offensive” or “uncomfortable,” as they regularly deal with stories about racism, sexual assault, and queer identities. However, this is exactly why students need access to them. 

“People deserve to see themselves represented,” said Rebecca Leber-Gottberg, the events coordinator at Rediscovered Books in Boise. “If you feel uncomfortable about a book that involves sexual assault of a teenage girl, think about the girl who’s been sexually assaulted and does not have the language or the network to put those feelings and put that experience out into the world.”

Access to books from school libraries is often the only way that kids are exposed to diverse backgrounds and stories. Reading allows students to learn about narratives and ideas that might not be explored in the classroom. 

[Illustration of books banned by the Nampa School District in Idaho.]
Illustration by Alieha Dryden

Rediscovered Books, a local bookstore with locations in downtown Boise and Caldwell, held a book giveaway in June in response to the Nampa book ban. The store offered all students and educators from the Nampa School District up to three free books from the district’s banned book list.

The giveaway relied on donations from the community, and in less than a week, the store gathered over 1,200 banned books to distribute to those whose access had been revoked by their schools.  

“What amazed me was that I remember reading a lot of these books as a student,” said Jacey Anderson, a Rediscovered Books employee who graduated from Nampa High School before receiving her bachelor’s degree in English Literature from Boise State University. “When I was young, “Drama” (by Raina Telgemeier), which is one of the banned books, was one of my first introductions to LGBTQ+ relationships, and without books like that I don’t think I would have felt comfortable exploring those options.”

Up until 2015, books were primarily banned by school districts if they were deemed to be “unsuitable to the age group,” but this has since shifted to include books “containing LGBTQ+ content.” Statistics from the American Library Association show that 5 of the 10 most banned books in 2021 were banned from schools due to LGBTQ+ content.

Even before the book ban in Nampa, Rediscovered Books has participated in the Read Freely Project in collaboration with the Cabin, a literary arts nonprofit in Boise. The Read Freely Project aims to provide books with diverse stories directly to the community and has given out over 1,750 books in total since the project began, according to Leber-Gottberg.

“Our country’s culture is beginning to diversify and bring to light things that have always been there but have not been mainstream or acknowledged by certain factions of the country, and that is frightening to people in power,” said Benjamin Kemper, shipping manager at Rediscovered Books. “The best way to pretend they don’t exist is to cut off all access to stories about it.”

Academic repercussions

Book bans not only bar kids from inclusivity, but they also severely hinder their overall educational experience. Some of the books banned in Nampa are part of the curriculum for the AP Literature and Composition course, such as ”The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margret Atwood, which Rajbhandari explained he is required to read while taking that course this school year.

AP courses are college-level classes offered by the College Board in schools across the country. These classes allow students to gain college credit prior to graduating high school without the burden of having to pay for them. 

Banning books that are course readings for AP classes put students at a disadvantage compared to many of their peers. Students who take AP classes are more likely to attend and be successful in college than those who do not, according to data from the College Board. Even students who failed their AP tests were found to be more advantaged than those who never took any AP courses. 

“Free access to information is integral to the maintenance of a democratic society,” Rajbhandari said. “And I think that by limiting students’ access to resources, those board members and the school district are failing in their duty to educate students.”

Three out of the five members of the Nampa School District’s Board of Trustees were elected last fall and are still in the first year of their term. All three new electees’ campaigns were funded largely by conservative donors and ran on platforms criticizing the inclusion of critical race theory in schools. 

Rajbhandari expressed that he doesn’t feel that the Boise School Board will follow suit with any book ban similar to that instated by Nampa’s school board. That said, the Boise school district could be impacted if the Idaho legislature chooses to pursue censorship laws at a state level. 

Censorship beyond book bans

In March, the Idaho House of Representatives passed House Bill 666. The bill has since been deferred to the State Affairs committee, but if this or a similar bill passed, it would remove current exemptions for libraries, schools and universities that protect them from prosecution for disseminating material that could be “harmful” to minors.

“Teachers and librarians’ livelihoods are being threatened just for having these books on the shelves,” Leber-Gottberg said. “It is only recently when we’re starting to see people pushing school boards and the legislature to deny access to books for people through public libraries [and] public schools.”

At the beginning of October, the Nampa School Board took censorship a step further, discussing a potential policy that would bar teachers from displaying certain content in their classrooms. This policy is nearly identical to one that the West Ada School District implemented this year, which limits what teachers can put on display in their classrooms to neutral and curriculum relevant materials.

Under such a policy, Pride flags may only be put up during Pride month in June, and Black Lives Matter flags would likely only be appropriate when learning about the movement during social studies classes. 

“This really has nothing to do with something [being] wrong in our schools. It is about power, and it is about money,” Rajbhandari said. “The far right are trying to undermine our schools … They don’t care about the cost to society. They just want the money.”

Censorship has been rapidly increasing across the country for the past few years with nearly 700 attempts to ban books in 2022, according to data from the American Library Association. As recently as 2015, there were less than 300 attempts to ban books throughout the entire year. 

The American Library Association also reported in 2021 that 75% of Democrats and 70% of Republicans oppose book banning, with only a small, vocal minority leading the charge to ban them. 

“[Book banning] is personally disheartening, [but] on the other side, it’s putting such a bright light on libraries. It’s an opportunity for us to really clarify how we operate and what we do and why it’s so fundamental to our society,” Armstrong said. “In some ways, this is our moment to rise to the occasion.”

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