The National Coalition Against Censorship joined the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE) in opposing censorship at Leesburg Public Library after two mothers, Dixie Fectel and Diane Venetta filed a petition objecting to sexual themes and the depiction of drug use in The Bermudez Triangle by Maureen Johnson and Only in Your Dreams: A Gossip Girl Novel by Cecily van Ziegesar.
On June 10th, the Leesburg Library Advisory Board refused to move these Young Adult books into the adult section of the library or to give them advisory labels. Library Director Barbara Morse cited the presence of similar themes on television, and parents’ right to decide what is appropriate for their own children, as reasons for the petition’s rejection.
On August 24th, the Leesburg City Commission will hear the appeal. Kids’ Right to Read Project sent the following letter in view of the Commission’s upcoming decision.
The Leesburg City Commission
501 W. Meadow Street
Leesburg, FL 34749
August 21, 2009
We are writing to urge you to affirm the June 10th decision of the Leesburg Public Library Advisory Board retaining The Bermudez Triangle by Maureen Johnson and Only in Your Dreams: A Gossip Girl Novel by Cecily Von Ziegesar in the Young Adult section of the library. Dixie Fechtel and Diane Venetta, who asked that these books be moved to the adult section, have now appealed this decision to you.
Minors enjoy many of the same First Amendment rights as adults. As the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently declared, “The Supreme Court has stated that ’minors are entitled to a significant measure of First Amendment protection, and only in relatively narrow and well-defined circumstances may government bar public dissemination of protected materials to them.’” Video Software Dealers Ass’n v. Schwarzenegger, 556 F.3d 950, 958 (9th Cir. 2009) (citations omitted).
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that government may restrict the dissemination of sexually explicit material to minors. However, neither Bermudez Triangle or Only in Your Dreams comes close to meeting the Supreme Court’s test, which requires that material must appeal to the “prurient interest” of minors, be “patently offensive,” and lack “serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value” for minors. Both Bermudez Triangle and Only in Your Dreams explore a range of significant issues especially relevant to youth today and therefore possess significant value.
Indeed, School Library Journal calls Bermudez Triangle an “exceptional novel… that perceptively reflects the real-life ambiguities and shades of gray faced by contemporary adolescents,” and Booklist writes that in Only in Your Dreams “the characters’ insecurities, failures, and triumphs will draw readers as much as the froth, flirting, and glamour.”
Books that address issues related to sexuality and gender identity are often controversial, but it is “well established that speech may not be prohibited because it concerns subjects offending our sensibilities.” Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition 535 U.S. 234, 245 (2002). For example, in Counts v. Cedarville School District 295 F. Supp. 2d 996 (W.D. Ark 2003), the court ordered a school district to return Harry Potter books to the shelves despite the fear of some parents that the books encouraged children to believe in witchcraft. A desire to protect the First Amendment rights of library patrons led the court in Sund v. City of Wichita Falls, 121 F. Supp. 530 (N.D. Tex., 2000) to strike down a library’s petition system that allowed “any special interest group to suppress library materials on the basis of their content.”
Parents who have concerns about their children’s reading choices have every right to guide them. However, they may not interfere with the choices other people make for their children. Therefore, none of the suggestions for restricting access to books in the Leesburg library are acceptable, including placing Young Adult books in the adult section; requiring written permission from a parent or guardian to check the books out; or applying a rating system based on particular types of content to classify books. These proposals would all create special rules and procedures for certain books simply because some patrons don’t like them. This is another form of discrimination on the basis of content that the Constitution does not permit.
In our experience, controversies about the content of books are best handled by enriching the array of reading materials available, not restricting them, and by including additional voices and titles rather than suppressing or excluding any.
The Library Advisory Board’s decision respected the First Amendment rights of all members of the community. We respectfully urge you to uphold it.
National Coalition Against Censorship
American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression
The Kids’ Right to Read Project interviewed author, Maureen Johnson, about the challenge against her book, The Bermudez Triangle in Leesburg. To hear and see what she had to say click here.
To view the Kids’ Right to Read Project’s letter from April 7, 2009, click here.
To view the Kids’ Right to Read Project’s letter from July 7, 2009, click here.