In removing books, Northeast ISD continues to pander to GOP culture wars
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In removing books, Northeast ISD continues to pander to GOP culture wars

Elizabeth Mikeska-Benfield and fellow protesters read in the middle of the Texas Capitol rotunda last year as The Texas Freedom Network holds a "read-in" to protest HB 900. The bill would banx sexually explicit materials from library books in schools. Books in school libraries, including at Northeast ISD, are convenient targets of the far right.

Elizabeth Mikeska-Benfield and fellow protesters read in the middle of the Texas Capitol rotunda last year as The Texas Freedom Network holds a “read-in” to protest HB 900. The bill would banx sexually explicit materials from library books in schools. Books in school libraries, including at Northeast ISD, are convenient targets of the far right.

Mikala Compton/Associated Press

Broad concepts are easy. Details are hard.

We all agree on the concept of parental choice when it comes to the education of our children, but we don’t necessarily agree on what parental choice should entail.

Last year, Texas passed a law ostensibly crafted to protect schoolchildren from library materials that would be inappropriate for them. That’s a reasonable objective.

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The starts to unravel, however,  in determining what constitutes inappropriate material and how to enforce the restrictions.

House Bill 900, the Restricting Explicit and Adult-Designated Educational Resources, or READER, Act, requires school book vendors to provide sexual content ratings on all library materials they sell.

Under the law, books can be categorized as “sexually explicit” or “sexually relevant,” or receive “no rating.” Sexually explicit books are banned from school libraries, while those rated sexually relevant can only be checked out with parental permission. It’s a novel and highly controversial approach, because it places the burden on book publishers to police themselves.

In response to a lawsuit from bookstores, publishing industry trade associations and a legal defense organization, U.S. District Judge Alan Albright issued a temporary injunction, calling the law a “web of unconstitutionally vague requirements.”

Albright added that the state, “in abdicating its responsibility to protect children, forces private individuals and corporations into compliance with an unconstitutional law that violates the First Amendment.”

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We should be used to this. We’re familiar with the way Republican lawmakers in Texas engage in culture war gamesmanship because it’s so much easier than solving the real-world challenges of health care, education funding, mobility, housing and the preservation of our natural resources.

The big disappointment comes from the way some skittish, perhaps hypervigilant, school districts are preemptively removing content from their own libraries.

That’s been particularly true at North East Independent School District  in San Antonio.

NEISD librarians have removed more than 900 books from library shelves for failing to “meet selection criteria,” according to district records.
Those removals happened without allowing for the district’s committee review process to take place.

Related: Knee-jerk reactions’: S.A. school districts yanking books from libraries without formal reviews

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This is getting to be a troubling pattern for NEISD. In the face of a little (real or perceived) political heat, district administrators become self-policing morality cops.

In 2021, then-state Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, sent a letter to Texas school superintendents. Krause included a list of 850 books that he considered objectionable and asked superintendents to let him know how many of those books they had in their libraries.

It was a transparent intimidation move, and NEISD fell for it. The district temporarily pulled more than 400 books on Krause’s list from their libraries. More than 100 of those books never returned.

Krause zeroed in books that alluded to same-sex relationships, feminist thought or a critique of systemic racism in the United States.

What censors of school libraries,  including HB 900 author Texas Rep.  Jared Patterson, R-Frisco, vilify as “pornography” could simply be a thoughtful examination of issues that make them uncomfortable.

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Consider that the recent book purging by NEISD included “Out of Darkness,” an acclaimed young adult novel by Ashley Hope Perez that delivers a frank depiction of racism and sexual violence.

Another book removed by NEISD was “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” a queer coming-of-age memoir by George M. Johnson.

If we apply the U.S. Supreme Court standard that obscenity, by nature, contains no redeeming social value, neither of those books could fairly be described as obscene. The truth is that they are convenient targets of the far right.

Book ratings systems and wholesale book purges don’t allow for nuance or complexity. They’re built on an infrastructure of fear. They thrive on taking content out of context.

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It’s sad and concerning that NEISD has once again played into that game.