Black Lives Matter; Syrian Refugees | Scales on Censorship

Here's advice on student protest requests, close-minded parents, and more.

Our high school students are very concerned about the police brutality in some cities in the nation. They are interested in marching with Black Lives Matter, but our principal doesn’t want the faculty to encourage them. As minors, do they have the First Amendment right to participate? Don’t discourage students from participating in the Black Lives Matter movement, but ask them to think about ways to stay safe. Inform them that the First Amendment gives them the right to march and protest—and with rights come responsibilities. In some cities, the protests have led to violence and intimidation of bystanders. Perhaps students can make a chart about appropriate behavior. Also, let them know that it takes more courage to become a leader than a follower. If they participate, ask them to write about the march and their role in it. That way, you are embracing their thoughts, not turning away from their cause.

Recently, a parent complained to a social studies teacher in my high school after the teacher had students read and respond to news stories related to Syrian refugees. How do we convince parents that these stories are related to social studies? Unfortunately, there are closed-minded parents who cause schools a lot of grief, especially regarding curriculum issues. Tell this one that humanitarian topics are very much related to social studies, and making students aware of the issues doesn’t mean you are promoting a particular view of what our nation should do. Since high school English classes teach all types of writing, suggest that the social studies teacher build on the skills taught in Language Arts by asking students to read topical magazine and newspaper articles and write persuasive papers about their personal perspectives. Parents don’t get to design the curriculum. That’s why we have teachers.

A high school student’s guardian requested that I not allow him to check books out of the library. What is an appropriate response to her? I can’t imagine why guardians would make this request unless they had a bad experience with a library previously, such as having to pay for a book that the student lost. Let the woman know that all students have the right to use a school library, and it isn’t the librarian’s job to police whether they borrows books. She must also understand that the student may need library materials to complete assignments, and that the role of the entire faculty, including the librarian, is to enrich the learning environment.

If she continues to insist, then she needs to take it up with the student. At that point, your responsibility is to make sure he has the opportunity to use the library before and after school, and perhaps during lunch.

I’m a middle school librarian, and teachers are pressuring me to separate books for sixth graders from those for seventh and eighth grade students. I’m totally against this, but I need guidance in making my case. I spent 27 years in a middle school, and it never dawned on me to separate books by grade. Sixth graders grow up a lot in a semester, and they shouldn’t be restricted to a section of the library labeled only for them. Where would you put The Giver? What about The Hunger Games? Some sixth graders can handle The Book Thief, while others may not be ready. To take another example, would you tell sixth graders they couldn’t read Russell Friedman’s Vietnam: A History of the War because they hadn’t yet studied the war? Friedman’s book is very readable, and I’d argue that fifth graders might well be drawn to it.

The freedom to read also allows the freedom to reject. When you share books with students, make sure they understand that they can return one if they don’t like it. In my experience, informed students will quickly bring back what they don’t feel ready for. Remember that you make the library policies, not the teachers. Students deserve access to all a library offers.

Pat Scales is the former chair of ALA’s Intellectual Freedom Committee. Send questions or comments on censorship to

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