NCAC joined the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE), the Association of American Publishers (AAP), PEN American Center, and the Freedom to Read Foundation in sending a letter urging members of the Topeka, Kansas, library board to restore The Joy of Sex and three other sex education books to public library shelves. On February 19, five members of the library board voted to remove The Joy of Sex, The Joy of Gay Sex, The Lesbian Kama Sutra, and Sex for Busy People from the library's health section after complaints that the books are allegedly "harmful to minors" under Kansas law. Adult patrons may only check the books out by specific request.
March 4, 2009
Board of Trustees
Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library
1515 SW 10th Ave
Topeka, KS 66604-1374
Dear Members of the Board of Trustees,
We are writing to oppose the library board’s Feb. 19 decision to remove several books from the health section of the library based on a complaint that they are “harmful to minors.” It is our understanding that the board ordered The Joy of Sex, Sex for Busy People, The Lesbian Kama Sutra, and The Joy of Gay Sex removed from the open shelves of the library and moved to a place that may be accessed only by a specific request by adult patrons. In voting to restrict access to these books, the board ignored the pleas of the library staff, three of its own members and 14 of the 16 who spoke during a public hearing on this issue. We agree with those who view the board’s action as fundamentally at odds with the role of a public library in providing the information that its patrons require as individuals, community members and citizens. We strongly urge you to reverse this decision.
According to newspaper reports, the board acted to restrict the access of minors to the books because they are allegedly “harmful to minors” under a Kansas law that bans the sale of sexually explicit material to minors. However, it is not clear that these books actually meet the legal definition of “harmful to minors.” Under the three-part test that has been established by the U.S. Supreme Court, it is not enough to show that a book contains some explicit material: it must be considered as a whole; be patently offensive to community values AND lack serious literary, artistic, political and scientific value for a minor. It could plausibly be argued that books of sex education like The Joy of Sex and The Joy of Gay Sex have serious value for a 17-year-old.
Even if the books are “harmful” to all minors, the board’s decision to remove them from the open shelves violates the First Amendment rights of adults. The U.S. Supreme Court has consistently declared that government’s efforts to protect minors cannot deprive adults of their right to see, read and hear all legal material. The library’s decision to remove The Joy of Sex and the other books to a restricted area will force adults to take additional steps in order to check them out. Some of those people will not be willing to approach librarians to request help in finding books that have been condemned as “harmful” by some community members.
But the biggest objection to the board’s decision is that it contradicts the main purpose of a library–to make available the books and other material that its patrons want. Beginning in 1939, the American Library Association recognized that this goal imposes on libraries the duty of making controversial material available to the public. In 1953, ALA joined with the nation’s publishers in issuing a statement, “The Freedom to Read,” that underlines this commitment:
The freedom to read is of little consequence when the reader cannot obtain matter fit for that reader’s purpose. What is needed is not only the absence of restraint, but the positive provision of the opportunity for the people to read the best that has been thought and said. Books are the major channel by which the intellectual inheritance is handed down, and the principal means of its testing and growth. The defense of the freedom to read requires of all publishers and librarians the utmost of their faculties, and deserves of all Americans the fullest of their support.
We strongly urge you to protect the right of all readers to read and think freely, and to reject the notion that the choices made by any one reader may be imposed on any other. By returning The Joy of Sex and the other books to the open shelves, you will demonstrate respect for your patrons and their choices; for the professionalism of the librarians who serve the reading public; and for the First Amendment and its central role in a pluralistic, democratic society.
National Coalition Against Censorship
Association of American Publishers
PEN American Center
Judith F. Krug
Freedom to Read Foundation