May 26, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

ACLU Files Suit Against Utah School District for Removing Polacco’s ‘In Our Mothers’ House’ from General Circulation

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Foundation has filed suit against a Utah school district that removed a picture book about a family with two mothers from school library shelves.

The book, In Our Mothers’ House (Philomel, 2009) by award-winning author Patricia Polacco, was relocated behind the desks of librarians in schools serving K-6 students in Utah’s Davis School District. The book is about three adopted children of differing ethnic backgrounds and their lesbian mothers.

Children in the district must present written parental permission to see the book, according to a 26-page complaint filed by the ACLU and the ACLU of Utah Foundation on November 13.

The Davis School District claims that the book violates Utah state laws banning support of homosexuality in instructional materials supplied by schools.

“[T]he District’s primary justification for removing the book from the shelves is that, by telling the story of children raised by same-sex parents, the book constitutes ‘advocacy of homosexuality,’ in purported violation of Utah’s sex-education laws,” according to the complaint.

The ACLU maintains that removing the book violates students’ first-amendment rights.

“The Supreme Court has been very clear that schools cannot remove books from the shelf simply because they disagree with their viewpoints,” Leslie Cooper, senior staff attorney at the ACLU LGBT Rights and AIDS Project, told SLJ. “This case is about students’ rights to books in the library.”

“This is not about instructional materials. It is a book on the library shelf,” Cooper said. “A book that depicts a family headed by a gay couple hardly advocates a gay family lifestyle.”

The ACLU is filing the proposed class-action suit on behalf of the two children of Davis School District mother Tina Weber, along with the other nearly 3,000 students in the district.

“I was shocked when I heard that a handful of parents had made a decision about whether everyone else’s kids could have access to this book,” Weber said, according to an ACLU press release. “Our job as parents is to make sure we teach our children about our values. We can do that without imposing our personal views on the rest of the school community.”

How the case evolved

The flap over the book started in January, when a kindergarten student at Utah’s Windridge Elementary School brought Polacco’s book home and the child’s parent objected to it. The parent filled out a form requesting that the book be removed from the library.

As recounted in a June SLJ article, the book was moved from the K-2 section to the 3-6 grade section following a January 27 meeting of the Windridge School Library Media Committee.

The parent, along with 25 others, then appealed to the District Library Media Committee, filling out complaint forms asking again that the book be removed. The group provided statements claiming that the book contains “propaganda, because it puts forth an idea, then makes it look attractive and normal” and that “the author is wanting us to accept homosexuality as a norm,” among other objections, according to the complaint.

On April 30, the District Library Media Committee voted to have the book put behind librarians’ desks in all district schools.

ACLU’s Cooper says, “The removal of the book was deferring to other parents’ decisions about what their children can read.”

According to a Salt Lake Tribune story published on June 1, school librarians were later being told to remove other books touching on gay and lesbian themes.

A web page on the Davis School District site states that “The Davis District Library Media Policies are undergoing review at this time.” A previous school library policy statement was recently removed from the site, according to the complaint.

Utah librarians respond

“It appeared to us that the Davis School District followed the procedures that they had in place,” said Shelly Ripplinger, president of the Utah Educational Library Media Association (UELMA). “As an organization, we support all school libraries having a selection policy and a reconsideration policy.”

“School libraries serve a different function than public libraries,” Ripplinger added. “Our purpose is to support the curriculum, so with our limited budget we have to focus on supporting the curriculum and leisure reading.”

Chris Williams, community relations director of the  Davis School District, was not available for comment at press time.

On November 14, the day after the lawsuit was filed, The Utah Library Association (ULA) posted a new  Statement on Intellectual Freedom on its website.

A video of parents reading Polacco’s book aloud at a Salt Lake City library appears on the ULA Intellectual Freedom Committee portion of the site. The video was created as part of the 2012 50 State Salute to Banned Books Week (September 30-October 6) organized by the American Library Association (ALA).

In Our Mothers’ House classifies as a banned book, said Wanda Mae Huffaker, ULA Intellectual Freedom Committee Chair. “Being placed behind the desk falls into the definition of being banned” because the book is “not accessible to everyone.”

“Few banned books stay banned,” Huffaker observed. “Most of the time librarians are able to get books back on the shelves. We librarians are good at what we do.”

Polacco, the author of more than 85 books for young people, explained in an October 5 article for the ACLU blog during Banned Books Week that she wrote In Our Mothers’ House after witnessing a fourth grade girl with lesbian parents and adopted siblings being told by an aide that “you don’t come from a real family.”

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  1. Everett Rupert says:

    The Utah school district ‘s stance brings us to grips with the 800 pound. gorilla in the room: tolerance. It seems it us no longer to just understand a point of view but not accept it as ones own belief: now we are expected to accept everything , lest we be branded heretics . So , no, I would. not want my school. aged child to be taught that a gay is a viable alterative. Teach him/her to follow the Bible and learn true tolerance .

  2. A school and a school district serve their students, parents and supporting community. Could this be a situation where the majority does rule, and the miniority deserves respect for their differences? When I defended a novel for 2.5 years as the complainant rejected opposing decision, and petitioned a higher judgment venue, I constantly faced the possibility that my book selection may end up not being the majority decision. It would have been a professional and philosophical slap, but the decision would have to be complied with by all. Fair? Yes. The best educational decision (in my mind)? No. Again, read my first sentence again. BTW, the complainant lost.

  3. Librarians have worked hard for years to offer representation that speaks to our diversity as human beings. By providing children with mirror images/stories/texts that reflect their lives, we tell them that their place at the table is honored. By providing children with images/stories/texts of difference, we nurture respect for and understanding of others. This should be part of every library’s mission, unless it is a private library.

  4. Tolerance and understanding differences is not the same as promoting or agreeing with a lifestye. For example, I am tolerant of others who think differently and live differently, but I’m not going to agree with them all the time. Providing different perspectives on how people live broadens our minds, but it doesn’t equal endorsement! If I read a book about Amish life to children, is anyone going to accuse me of promoting an anti-electric lifestyle? Of course not. Books that show same sex families help kids understand that they exist and that they aren’t so different. My kids have 2 moms. We are out there and other kids will meet ours… will they love their neighbors or will they condemn their differences? I hope my childrem are treated with respect by all, whether you agree with me or not!

    As for school librarians, they’re in a tricky spot. Librarians generally want open access and a broad range of viewpoints to better serve all their patrons. But school librarians are saddled with so many rules, and as teachers (which they also are) they teach and support curriculum and administrative rules. I’m glad to be a public librarian, seeing what school librarians face, but I have to tip my hat to them: it can’t be easy!