Protecting Minors’ Rights to Diverse Reading

On October 30, I wrote an article for the Secular AZ blog about the right to privacy that minors have in schools. But privacy isn’t our only concern when it comes to minors’ rights. The proliferation of extremist organizations like Moms for Liberty and other book banners has raised concerns about students’ access to diverse reading materials.

By guaranteeing all individuals the right to express their ideas without governmental interference, the First Amendment also guarantees the right to read and listen to the ideas of others. Our freedom of speech is meaningless if we cannot gather information on subjects that we want to speak about. Like adults, students have the right to express their beliefs, read, inquire, and express themselves. And if you read my last article on minors’ rights, you know that the Supreme Court in Tinker v. Des Moines said students do not shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate.

First Amendment and Reading Rights

According to the American Library Association, there were at least 1,269 demands to censor books in 2022. Most of the books featured protagonists of color or the experiences of LGBTQ+ people. Although public school officials retain substantial discretion in designing school curricula, attempts to censor access to materials in the school library may not be permitted unless the restricted materials can be demonstrated to be educationally unsuitable.

In Board of Education v. Pico, the Supreme Court rejected a school board’s attempt to remove books from a school library because “the right to receive ideas is a necessary predicate to the recipient’s meaningful exercise of his own rights of speech, press, and political freedom.” The Court made clear that students too are beneficiaries of this principle.

Challenging Notions of Controversy

Furthermore, attacking books merely for being “controversial” suggests that the purpose of education is not the investigation of ideas but rather the indoctrination of a certain set of beliefs and standards. This absolutely contradicts our First Amendment rights. For example, book banners have called for The Grapes of Wrath to be banned because it uses the name of God in vain, Bless Me, Ultima because it deals with the “occult” and religious viewpoints (the main character struggles with his religious beliefs), and The Kite Runner because it has religious themes that “may lead to terrorism” (the main characters are Muslims from Afghanistan).

Restricting access to any of these books for religious reasons implies the superiority of one religion over others or religion over nonreligion. As Justice Jackson famously wrote in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion…”

Protecting Unpopular Expression

The Supreme Court has also stated that schools have a strong interest in protecting unpopular expression, in exposing students to a wide range of views, and in giving students the opportunity to discuss those views. Unpopular or “controversial” ideas must be protected because they have the most need for protection.

Some people have also made the argument that the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause prohibits political majorities from expunging the experiences of BIPOC from the curricula taught in public schools. Similarly, they argue that the Constitution prohibits political majorities from excluding from the curricula taught in public schools’ lessons that teach that the humanity of the LGBTQ+ community ought to be respected.

The Library Bill of Rights and Access for Minors

The American Library Association has its own Library Bill of Rights which prohibits library policies and procedures that effectively deny minors equal and equitable access to all library resources available to other users. The ALA opposes all attempts to restrict access to library services, materials, and facilities based on the age of library users.

Individuals have the right to be selective in their own reading. And parents have the right to control their children’s upbringing, which may include imposing limitations on what they can or cannot read. It makes sense that parents should be able to make fundamental decisions for the children they have a legal and moral responsibility for. But they have no right to limit the freedom of choice of others or to impose their own standards on the rest of the community.

Additionally, parents cannot argue that their right to control their child’s upbringing extends to banning books from the library out of fear that their child might come across them. Public schools and public libraries use community money to serve the entire community—not just a few loud parents who want to control what everyone else reads and believes.

Resources for Informed Advocacy

For more information, Secular AZ has three helpful pamphlets regarding constitutional rights in schools on our website:

You can also check out Brooklyn Public Library’s Books Unbanned initiative, which gives teens access to banned and challenged materials.

Adriana Clark is a recent law school graduate and legal fellow with Secular AZ.