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Opinion | Almost four decades later, we’re still stuck fighting about books

The misguided drive to cleanse the nation’s libraries for whatever reason is commonplace.

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The fight over LGBTQ+ books in the Autauga-Prattville Public Library that began with a few parents knowing precariously little about the books they so quickly became angry about and ended with those same books being placed behind the library’s circulation desk — a tacit acknowledgment that they were somehow dangerous or inappropriate — is nothing new.

The demonization of queer people, yes, that’s at least a political phenomenon in vogue, and the detachment from reality — especially over in Oklahoma, where the state schoolboard spokesman fired off an email ranting about “liberal woke culture seeping into our schools, liberal indoctrination in the classrooms and pushing pornography in schools” — is certainly disconcerting. But while this 2023 iteration is more vicious and consequential, the nuttiness doesn’t seem that different than the insanity of the Satanic panic in the 1980s, which featured “60 Minutes” somberly investigating whether “Dungeons & Dragons” was one of the great dangers facing the nation’s youth.  

The core of what happened in Prattville, the misguided drive to cleanse the nation’s libraries for whatever reason, is so commonplace and everlasting in modern politics and culture that it has its own annual commemoration — and has since 1982. And Alabama has not been historically immune from national censorial fevers.  

The same year “Banned Book Week” began, high school libraries in Anniston removed copies of actress Doris Day’s autobiography because of its “shocking” contents, and a report by the Alabama branch of the ACLU a few years later found that 85 libraries across the state had encountered some attempt to ban or censor a book, with targets including William Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying” and Herman Raucher’s “Summer of ’42.”

“It shows an amazing amount of censorship,” said Mary Weidler, the executive director of the Alabama ACLU, in a States News Service report.

But Weidler wasn’t concerned only with the drive to sanitize the state’s libraries.    

“We see an enormous increase in the censorship of textbooks,” Weidler said.

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Weidler wasn’t wrong — in fact, the push to politicize and attack Alabama’s textbooks would eventually wind up in federal court. In 1987’s Smith v. Board of School Commissioners, a group of Mobile County parents and teachers sued their school district and the state, arguing that the then-current slate of textbooks represented a constitutionally impermissible endorsement of religion. But it wasn’t that the books had an overtly Christian message; no, according to the suit, Alabama’s textbooks were an attempt to establish a “secular humanism” in the state’s public schools and thus infringed on the First Amendment rights of the Christian plaintiffs.   

And while “secular humanism” as a faith may have only had the adherence of the boogeymen invented by the plaintiffs, a federal district court judge found himself convinced by the argument and ruled that some 30 textbooks — again, books selected by Alabama leaders of the 1980s — were indeed harbingers of a godless state-backed religion.   

“The vast majority of Americans, for most of our history, have lived in a society in which religion was a part of daily life,” wrote Judge William Brevard Hand, a man whose obituary boasted that he was “compelled” to reverse the U.S. Supreme Court when it had “strayed from original intent of the Constitution,” which is not at all how the federal judicial works. “This aspect was not something that most people even thought about, or had to; it was a given, it was axiomatic, just as telephones, automobiles and fast food are a given of current culture. For many people, religion is still this important. One would never know it by reading these books.”

Hand’s 100-plus page opinion is a mind-melting meander that stumbles over educational theory and religion with side trips into “hedonism” and “humanistic psychology” that eventually settles into the position that the state must teach some sort of theism, lest it create a religion of its own.

“Teaching that moral choices are purely personal and can only be based on some autonomous, as yet undiscovered and unfulfilled, inner self is a sweeping fundamental belief that must not be promoted by the public schools,” Hand concluded.

The 11th Circuit, thankfully, had little trouble reversing Hand on appeal, finding that “the wisdom of an education policy or its efficiency from an educational point of view is not germane to the constitutional issue of whether that policy violates the Establishment Clause.” Simply put, the courts had no place to intervene where the Mobile County School Board had selected books that may have omitted some things the plaintiffs in the case would have preferred taught — and that Christianity-sized hole did not represent an endorsement of “secular humanism” or any other pseudo religion.

While “secular humanism” has largely disappeared as a boogeyman outside of Bill O’Reilly’s “war on Christmas” and a few other flareups on Fox News, Judge Hand’s decision — and his willingness to invent a threat to the schoolchildren of Alabama — echoes in the same unwarranted assuredness of those we see in Prattville today.

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Whether it’s class texts or library books, as long as there are people in this state with a streak of ignorance and self-importance as wide as I-65 is long, so confident in the righteousness of their cause despite all evidence to the contrary, we will, ever so miserably and predictably, continue to have these fights.

Will Nevin, J.D., Ph.D., is an assistant professor and program coordinator for Communications Media at Alabama A&M University.

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