ACLU sues Missouri school district over book removal policy

INDEPENDENCE, Mo. (AP) — The ACLU of Missouri is suing a suburban Kansas City school district over its policy of automatically removing any challenged library material before it is reviewed.

The ACLU argues in a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday that the Independence School District’s current policy violates students’ First Amendment rights because it “restricts their access to ideas and information for an improper purpose and without any prior notice.”

Under the current policy, a library material is automatically removed after it is challenged. A committee then evaluates the material and the school board votes on whether to keep it, The Kansas City Star reported.

The district said in a statement Wednesday that it stands by the policy, which it said was “thoughtful, well-considered, and calculated to balance and protect the rights of all students and their parents.”

The district said its policy is nearly identical to policies used by numerous public school districts in Missouri.

“The District will vigorously defend against this lawsuit,” the statement said. “It is unfortunate that the District will be required to expend taxpayer funds to defend against the ACLU’s latest unfounded complaint.”

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of four parents in the district, comes after a parent in April challenged the children’s book “Cats vs. Robots #1: This Is War” because it includes a nonbinary character. The book was removed from shelves while a committee reviewed it, and the school board then voted to permanently remove it from elementary school libraries.

The book, with themes about science, technology, engineering and mathematics, is marketed toward children ages 8 through 12. Only three pages of the 307-page book discuss the character being nonbinary, the ACLU’s suit says.

The current policy also doesn’t provide an appeal process, which the ACLU argues violates students’ rights “because it restricts their access to ideas and information for an improper purpose and without any prior notice.”

The lawsuit comes as efforts to remove books in school and public libraries increase across the country.

The ACLU’s lawsuit says 138 school districts in 32 states removed more than 2,500 books during the 2021-22 school year. And 41% of all books banned nationwide during the school year contained LGBTQ characters while 40% of book removals included important characters of color and 21% of the banned books directly addressed issues of race and racism, according to the suit.

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