FAYETTEVILLE — “I’m not a bigot,” Laurie Taylor tells a crowd that seems to believe otherwise. “I’m not a homophobe. I’m a conscientious parent.”
On this warm September night, 300 people have filled the Fayetteville High School auditorium and most of them are anti-Taylor, or at least anti-Taylor’s side in a dispute over certain books in Fayetteville school libraries. She wants these books removed, or access to them restricted. The Fayetteville School Board, seated on the front row of the auditorium, is sponsoring what it calls a town hall meeting to hear from those who agree with Taylor and those who don’t. Taylor is the first speaker, appropriately, since she touched off the controversy with her public objections to what she considers dirty books.
Small and scrappy, she is unintimidated by this mostly hostile audience. It, in turn, is unpersuaded by her, and barely polite. There might have been some booing had not the school board president, Steve Percival, pointedly asked in advance for kind treatment of all speakers.
“I’m totally shocked at how controversial this has become,” Taylor says, perhaps exaggerating just a bit. She seems too bright not to have anticipated a strong reaction to her efforts. “I don’t want to ban anything. I just want to have a say in what books my children can have access to.” According to Fayetteville school superintendent Bobby New, Taylor’s original complaint did ask for removal of books that she found objectionable. She has since fallen back to a more defensible position, proposing notification, to parents who want it, when children attempt to check out books that have been placed on a restricted list by a yet-to-be appointed committee. The student couldn’t get the book without parental approval. Children of parents who don’t want to be notified would still be allowed to read anything they want under her proposal, Taylor says, and their parents would not be bothered. In objecting to her plan, she tells the crowd, “You’re doing to me what you say I’m doing to you” — that is, deciding what’s best for someone else’s children. At the end, she is almost pleading. We have to live together, she says; we need to get along. “We’re a whole. Let’s come up with a decision that fits us all.” The Taylor partisans in the crowd cheer, drawing attention to how badly outnumbered they are.
Tim de Noble, an architect and assistant professor at the University of Arkansas, is first up for the opposing faction. He has children in the public schools. He is opposed to censorship, and “That’s what this is all about.” A system already is in place that allows a parent to request that a child not be allowed to check out a certain book, and the school will honor that request, he says. (Taylor says this system works only when the parent knows the name of a particular book. She wants a parent-led committee that will compile a list of books requiring notification to parents who want it. She herself has compiled a list of over 50 books in the Fayetteville school libraries that she considers objectionable.)
Taylor has posted provocative excerpts from books on a website. (See page 14.) These passages have been taken out of context, de Noble says. He has read some of the books on Taylor’s list — the whole books — and “They’re not pornographic or obscene. They are frank, sometimes.” He mentions “Push,” a novel by an author called Sapphire that is much cited by those who want restrictions on books. It’s about a black girl who is sexually abused by both parents, has two children by her father, and eventually struggles through to a better life. “Push” is not pornography, de Noble says, but “the story of a young woman who never had the opportunity to be a child.”
De Noble concludes with the appeal “Let’s not choose intolerance over understanding.” The crowd goes wild.
All this started last spring. According to Taylor, 39, she received a letter from a national organization she belongs to — “Point of View,” a conservative group — advising that Planned Parenthood was distributing an offensive book called “It’s Perfectly Normal” to school libraries. She found that book “and others like it” in the Fayetteville schools. (According to Marvin Schwartz of Little Rock, vice president of community affairs for Planned Parenthood of Arkansas and Eastern Oklahoma, “It’s Perfectly Normal” is not distributed by Planned Parenthood. “We do support its use,” he said. “This book is one of the most highly acclaimed sex manuals in the country.”) At the time, Taylor’s two daughters, 11 and 13, attended Fayetteville public schools. They are now enrolled in private schools. As a taxpayer in the school district, Taylor retains status to challenge school policies.
Taylor contacted a school librarian and was told she could file a form if she wanted to object to a book. Eventually, she formally complained about three sex manuals — “It’s Perfectly Normal,” “It’s So Amazing” and “The Teenage Guy’s Survival Guide.”
In accordance with school policy, a committee of librarians, teachers and parents appointed by the superintendent studied the three books. “The books were determined to be clinically great sex education books,” superintendent New says. “I wish I’d had them when I was bringing up my daughter.”
The committee essentially recommended that the books remain in general circulation. But despite his professed enthusiasm for the books, New recommended that they be available only with parental approval. The school board adopted his recommendation, angering some patrons, who not only disagreed with the substance of the decision but felt that it emboldened Taylor to make further demands. Emboldened or not, Taylor posted on the web a list of 54 other books she considered pornographic, with excerpts. She says she excerpted some of the books herself and “other parents” did the others: “It’s just been a parent effort.”
Dr. Janet L. Titus, a physician opposed to Taylor’s campaign, said in an e-mail to allies that Taylor would deny Titus’ children “access to books I would be happy for them to read. Her list includes Pulitzer Prize winning novels by Nobel Prize winning authors such as Toni Morrison and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.” In fact, three novels by Morrison are on the list (“Beloved,” “Song of Solomon,” “The Bluest Eye”) and two by Marquez (“Love in the Time of Cholera,” “One Hundred Years of Solitude”). “Forever” by Judy Blume is on the list. A popular writer of fiction for children and young adults, Blume seems to make all the “challenged books” lists. “The Homo Handbook — Getting in Touch With Your Inner Homo” by Judy Carter is on the list too. So is “GLBTQ: The Survival Guide for Queer and Questioning Teens” by Kelly Huegel. Some of the books on Taylor’s list can be found also on an American Library Association list of the 100 most-challenged books.
“I want access restricted to any book that contains explicit sexual conduct or deviant sexual behavior,” Taylor says in an interview. “Every one of those 54 books has multiple [offensive] passages. I’m talking about a plethora of verbiage, most of it gutter language, on all sorts of sexual behavior, on bestiality, on incest, on homosexuality.” A student should not be reading such a book without the knowledge of his or her parents, she says. “Why would any conscientous adult have a problem with that? I’m having a hard time conceptualizing why anybody would object.”
Her fight is not about religion, she says, though her religion has been mentioned by her opponents. “I didn’t bring it up, I just answered questions. I am a Christian, a devout Christian, an evangelical Christian. I’m also a conservative. But this is not a religious battle. It’s a battle over parents’ rights. I know that not everyone is a Christian. I know that not everyone is a conservative. Parents who don’t care what their children read can sign a form saying my kids can have access to anything they want access to.”
On July 27, with disagreement over Taylor’s complaints intensifying, three Fayetteville school librarians send a letter to the school board and New. They are Sarah Roberson and Cassandra Barnett of Fayetteville High and Sarah Thompson of McNair Middle School. They say that since Taylor’s opposition to books in the public school libraries was first reported a month earlier in the Northwest Arkansas Times, “a flurry of letters to the editor, articles and editorials have appeared in that newspaper, as well as in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and the Fayetteville Morning News. In addition, many e-mails from various sources have appeared in district librarians’ inboxes. We assume that the district administrators and school board members, as the decision-makers within the district, have received even more such e-mails than we have. [New eventually advised Taylor that he would no longer communicate with her by e-mail, only by letter.] Not all information in these sources is accurate. We’d like … to set the record straight.”
The librarians quote an editorial from the Northwest Arkansas Times: “If what Laurie Taylor is doing is censorship, then what the librarians do year in and year out also qualifies as such.” They reply:
“Librarians make choices based on reviews and previews to build a collection that meets the needs of the curriculum and personal reading choices of students. We respond to the requests of students, teachers and parents. It is our responsibility to provide materials that represent a variety of viewpoints, a wide range of topics, and a broad spectrum of student maturity. We make professional judgments, not personal choices.” They quote from a statement by the American Library Association: “There are many objective reasons unrelated to the ideas expressed in materials that a library might decide not to add those materials to its collection: redundancy, lack of community interest, expense, space, etc. Unless the decision is based on a disapproval of the ideas expressed and desire to keep those ideas away from public access, a decision not to select materials for a library collection is not censorship.”
A letter to the editor of the Northwest Arkansas Times said that “The Homo Handbook” was “an inappropriate contribution to a high school library and has absolutely no place in my child’s education curriculum.” The three librarians respond: “This book was not placed in the collection to meet a curricular need and is not used in any classroom. It has never been on a reading list for any class. It is not a part of any student’s educational curriculum, but was donated by the FHS [Fayetteville High School] Gay Straight Alliance to meet the needs of students who identify themselves as gay or questioning. To date, it has only been checked out once by a staff member. That Dewey section of the collection is scheduled for weeding this school year, and this specific title would most likely have been removed because of lack of student interest. (We do, however, foresee curiousity about the book fueled by Ms. Taylor’s inclusion of it on her list, which may lead to increased circulation of the book.)”
At the town hall meeting, Marcia Gordon identifies herself as a taxpayer and a stay-at-home mom with three children. She is opposed to censorship. She herself objects to the popular “Left Behind” series of books, she says, explaining that her husband is Jewish and that she doesn’t like books that say he and members of his family are going to hell. But she didn’t stop her son from reading a “Left Behind” book. Instead, she talked to him about the book. “Some of us want to protect the minds of our children by filling them with knowledge.” As for Taylor’s excerpts, she says the courts have held that a book must be taken as a whole to determine whether it qualifies as pornography, whether it has no redeeming qualities, no literary merit.
John Remmers, an art teacher at FHS and the faculty adviser for the student Gay-Straight Alliance, gives an emotional talk about how gay students suffer, sometimes to the point of killing themselves, and how they need books that tell them they’re all right. He says he knew a mother who said she’d rather see her son dead than gay. A child with a mother like that will never check out a restricted book, he says. “They fear their parents finding out.” He receives a wild, standing ovation.
Will Miller, a UA professor and ordained Christian minister, says “I think a group of people of certain religious beliefs are behind this.” Banning books opposed by one religious group will lead to demands for banning from other groups, he says.
Joy Williams, a grandmother speaking for restricted access, says she’s a Christian too, and “I feel persecuted. I don’t think I’ve ever been persecuted before now.”
Bruce Ritter, who has two children in the Fayetteville schools, says he’s saddened by the community’s reaction to Taylor’s suggestion. Somebody has made decisions about what books are in the school libraries, he says, and parents want a voice in those decisions. He says people make much of the fact that some of the books on Taylor’s list were written by Pulitzer Prize winners and Nobel laureates, “but the same words could have come from Hustler magazine.” He says he can’t quote passages from “Push” in a public forum, “because of the standards of decency that we have adopted. I can’t say these words but our children can read them.”
Kathleen Leatherby says, “I feel it’s important that we protect the innocence of our children as long as we can.” That’s the reason for movie ratings and laws against pornography, she says. She says the school district sends materials home with schoolchildren that encourage parental involvement in the schools. “We’re just asking for a little more parent involvement.”
On Sept. 15, two days after the town hall meeting, the school board met. By a vote of 4 to 3, the board rescinded its earlier decision that put “It’s Perfectly Normal,” “It’s So Amazing” and “The Teenage Guy’s Survival Guide” on restricted shelves. Instead, the board adopted the evaluation committee’s recommendations that the books be in general circulation, except for some slight restriction on access in the case of “It’s Perfectly Normal.” The three board members in the minority seemed not so much opposed to reversing the earlier decision as wanting more time for consideration.
The board acted after its attorney, Rudy Moore Jr., said that defense of the restrictions adopted last spring would be difficult. He cited a 2003 ruling by federal Judge Jimm Hendren of Fayetteville. Hendren ruled that “even a minimal loss of First Amendment rights is injurious to students” and that restrictions on student access to library books have a “stigmatizing effect” on students, Moore said.
But according to New, the committee recommendation adopted by the school board says that in middle school, parental advice should be sought before a student can check out “It’s Perfectly Normal,” if a teacher or librarian feels that such advice is needed. (Oddly enough, there is no such restriction on elementary students checking out “It’s Perfectly Normal,” though those students are younger than middle- school students. “That was the language of the committee recommendation,” New said. “I don’t feel I can change it.”) A reporter asked Moore if the latest restriction on “It’s Perfectly Normal” would be difficult to defend also. He wouldn’t say.
The American Civil Liberties Union may be interested in the answer to that question, as a chronic defender of First Amendment rights. A lawyer for the Arkansas ACLU attended the town hall meeting. Rita Sklar, director of the Arkansas ACLU, said later that the organization was watching the Fayetteville situation closely.
The situation will bear watching for quite some time, evidently. Taylor has filed two more formal challenges to books. (The school district has told her it can’t evaluate 50 books at once, and that challenges will be handled one at a time.) The superintendent has appointed a new evaluation committee that’s now at work on “Push.” Besides faculty and staff, the committee includes two parents and a student. After “Push” has been evaluated, another committee will take up “Deal With It! A Whole New Approach to Your Body, Brain and Life as a Gurl.”
At the suggestion of board president Steve Percival, the board voted to create a committee to study the district’s policy on selection of library books, with the possibility of more parental involvement in mind. That study could help keep the pot boiling in Fayetteville.
Taylor says she’s not inclined to let it cool off, and she seems a tenacious sort.
Before the school board met and voted against her, Taylor told a reporter “If they do not restrict this material somehow, I’ll press forward. I don’t know how. [Litigation? Appeals to the state Board of Education and/or the legislature? Attempts to elect new school board members?] But will I let it go? No, I will not.”
And if not her, someone else, probably. If not here, somewhere else.
A university town, progressive by Arkansas standards, Fayetteville may be the worst place in the state to mount a challenge like Taylor’s. Certainly, the town hall meeting suggested as much. When Religious Rightists tried to run the local abortionist out of business a few years ago, patients and friends rallied around the doctor and repelled the aggressors. And how many Arkansas schools have a Gay-Straight Alliance?
Fayetteville schools may have more of the kind of books likely to be challenged, too. The Little Rock School District does not have a computerized list of library books district-wide, a spokesperson said, so the Times checked a couple of Little Rock high schools for a couple of books that Taylor finds highly offensive. Central High, Little Rock’s largest, has neither “Push” nor “Deal With It!” in its library. Parkview doesn’t have “Deal With It!” but it does have “Push.” Parkview librarian Georgia Wells said she purchased “Push” in the late ‘90s at the request of a teacher. The book has been checked out once, in March 2001, and that was by a non-student.
That there hasn’t been more controversy over “objectionable” books in school libraries is likely because most parents didn’t know what was in the books. Taylor has let the cat out of the bag with her posting of excerpts. Many people, not all of them religious conservatives, are made uncomfortable by the thought of this material in their children’s hands and minds, and without even parental notice. Taylor gained support from some elements of the media, which is often accused of being leftist and usually opposed to censorship.
Once the opposition to “dirty” books in the schools is fully aroused, the issue, like abortion, may be one for which there is no compromise. And, as with abortion, the opponents of censorship may find themselves turning more and more to the federal courts for protection. Those courts are sympathetic at the moment, but George Bush is not through appointing judges.