In the United States, school board meetings usually show democracy in action. Concerned citizens can and do attend monthly board meetings, where everyone can give input to decisions made by their public officials. Unfortunately, democracy was missing in action on February 6 in Colton, California, when the board of the Colton Unified School District voted to remove Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye from the district’s reading list.

Democracy only works when all voices are heard. In addition, democracy requires due process, that government act fairly when it takes official action. The Supreme Court has said that notice and fair warning of upcoming government action is, in fact, the “touchstone” of due process. The Colton USD board’s decision to remove The Bluest Eye fell short in both these measures of democracy.

The published agenda for the February 6 meeting stated only that the entire Secondary Core and Extended Reading List would be voted on at the meeting. The list contains more than 500 books which can be assigned by district teachers. No notice was given that The Bluest Eye, or any other particular book, would be discussed, much less challenged, at the meeting.

According to press reports, opponents of the book had secretly lobbied board members before the meeting took place. The meeting agenda contained dozens of items. Yet all but one comment from attending citizens was about The Bluest Eye–all calling for its removal. No one spoke in the book’s favor, because no notice had been given that it would be challenged. Some two dozen opponents of the book attended the meeting. As a result, a motion to approve the entire list failed, but was immediately followed by a motion to approve the list without The Bluest Eye. The second motion passed.

Clearly, an organized group representing a tiny fraction of the community hijacked democracy in Colton by lobbying behind the scenes, stacking the meeting with supporters, and, most disturbingly, ensuring that dissenters had no opportunity to speak. All to target a single book by a Nobel Prize-winning author. 

Many things were on display at the Board meeting on February 6, but democracy was not one of them.

It’s too late to change what happened on February 6, but it’s not too late to make sure that it doesn’t happen again, either in Colton or elsewhere. The National Coalition Against Censorship regularly works with school districts to establish procedures to ensure that all viewpoints and voices are heard before denying students an educational opportunity by removing a book from a reading list. In addition, we call on those who value freedom of expression and the freedom to read to participate in the democratic process. Go to school board meetings and speak out when censors attempt to remove books. Because make no mistake: this is what censorship looks like. Don’t let children’s education, or our democracy, be hijacked.

“The thought that leads me to contemplate with dread the erasure of other voices, of unwritten novels, poems whispered or swallowed for fear of being overheard by the wrong people, outlawed languages flourishing underground, essayists’ questions challenging authority never being posed, unstaged plays, canceled films—that thought is a nightmare. As though a whole universe is being described in invisible ink.”

–Toni Morrison, Burn This Book