The SC Board of Education’s Draft Book Censorship Regulations
They're worse than I feared.
The first section of the following is adapted pretty closely from the remarks I did give to the South Carolina State Board of Education Policy Committee on Tuesday, November 14, 2023, and on the remarks I planned to give that afternoon at the full board meeting. Because of a very large turnout of public speakers (both for and against the adoption of the regulations), public comment was shortened in the first meeting, and I didn’t get to speak in the second.
I was a classroom English language arts and research teacher in South Carolina public schools for sixteen years. Literacy instruction is extremely important to me.
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I have many concerns about the proposed regulations on classroom and school library materials. One is that the current language seriously threatens literacy and literacy instruction.
Many states have already passed restrictive policies on instructional materials, and several districts in our own state have followed suit. This is helpful, if only in the sense that we don’t have to guess what the effects of the proposed regulations will be.
By broadly banning what are called “obscenity” and “sexual content,” the proposed regulations invite challenges and/or bans of many texts we can anticipate (that is, books featuring representations of people of color and LGBTQ+ people), and many more that will probably give even proponents of restrictions a nasty surprise. The way these terms are defined in the proposed regulations prohibits even older students from accessing any text at school-- whether for a class assignment or for self-selected reading— that contains any word that could not be aired on broadcast television, and any text that contains any description of “sexual content”.
I understand the impulse to protect children, and no one is arguing that there should be no selection criteria for books, or no discussion of age-appropriateness, but I also imagine the many current and former educators on this committee and in this room can immediately see the risks inherent in such broad restrictions.
And again, we don’t have to speculate. Here are some books that have already been challenged and/ or banned according to very similar guidelines:
In Utah, the Bible was removed from schools at the end of last school year for “vulgarity or violence”. The Bible does contain descriptions, some quite graphic (content warning: sexual assault) of nudity, sex, incest, sexual assault, murder, and other forms of violence. Of course, it’s the context of this content that determines whether the text should be considered obscene or pornographic— and few would argue that the Bible is. But the regulations don’t allow us to consider context.
In Florida, Texas, and other states, a graphic novel version of The Diary of Anne Frank has been challenged or removed, usually on the grounds of “sexual content”. The book does not contain explicit sex or nudity, but would be threatened by these regulations, as written, because of brief scenes where Anne sees a statue with breasts and describes a crush on a friend. And the regulations do not allow other excerpts of the book to be used; if challenged successfully, the whole book must be removed.
In many states, To Kill a Mockingbird has been banned, because it contains violence, and bad language, in its depiction of the Jim Crow era. Again, the context of the bad language is ignored by this current regulation.
In South Carolina, too, most book challenges have focused on out-of-context words or depictions. Pickens County Schools have restricted Dear Martin, a book that explores the complexities of a young Black man’s life after he is wrongly arrested, supposedly because it contains bad language, including the N word. But that bad language is both essential to the book— which realistically depicts the lives of teenage characters-- and on the same level as many other YA books featuring non-Black characters, which were not challenged. Similarly, The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison, which is most commonly taught in college-level AP courses, and which is one of the books that appears most frequently on the AP Literature exam, has been challenged in Horry County and banned in Beaufort on similar grounds, for all ages. To determine which books are appropriate for different age groups, surely it’s the context that justifies the content.
Many (but not all) challenged books contain “bad words,” and some contain “sexual content” (as broadly defined in the regulations1). Where any resident has the right to challenge them, we are predictably seeing challenges that are biased and political in nature.
It is the context of words and content that creates meaning. I don’t believe anyone in this room wants to ban Shakespeare, 1984, “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” most Greek tragedies, or an endless list of other essential texts that contain, out of context, “objectionable” language or “sexual content”. Therefore, I urge you not to adopt the draft regulations.
We can’t address the literacy needs of diverse students without providing access to diverse texts. These regulations give individuals the ability to challenge texts that have already been adopted for use by the experts-- teachers and librarians-- without any test of legitimacy. Local boards, and this board, would have to review books even under the flimsiest objections. While the regulations require that complainants read the books, there will of course be no way to ensure this. The likely result is what we have already seen in places like Beaufort, where a single person’s complaint— containing mostly books from the website BookLooks, which posts out of context excerpts from books— resulted in 97 books being pulled, mostly high-interest Young Adult literature— the kinds of books that make our reluctant readers interested in reading— and classics of African American literature.
For example, Superintendent Ellen Weaver recently chose an excerpt from Douglass’ Narrative to illustrate the importance of literacy instruction during a recent meeting of school librarians. In her excerpt, young Douglass discovers the power of reading when Sophia Auld, who has recently enslaved Douglass along with her husband, teaches him the ABC’s. However, husband and wife quickly end this basic literacy instruction, realizing that allowing him unfettered access to books and writing will make Douglass more likely to rebel against slavery. This is how he infers the power of literacy: because of their censorship of the texts and skills he needs to learn.
Douglass is forced to risk punishment many times in order to learn to read and write, relying on white children who violate the Aulds’ prohibition of literacy, and on books he is able to access without permission, and at great risk.
Implicit in the Superintendent’s selection of that text, is the acknowledgement that the theft of opportunities to learn to read and write is a moral and ethical crime, that it deprives children and adults of chances not only to “better” themselves in the professional and public sense, but to discover and explore their own humanity. As Douglass writes, “providence” brings him to a place where he can ultimately teach himself to read and write; this is what allows him to eventually achieve freedom.
Unfortunately, under the regulations, Douglass’ book, itself, could easily be challenged and banned.
Douglass writes, in Chapter One, about his Aunt Hester, on whom her “master” has developed a sexual fixation. (Douglass has already frankly discussed the likelihood that his biological father is his original enslaver, who sold his mother away.) I won’t read aloud every word in this passage, because this meeting is being recorded for all audiences, but I do think it would be appropriate for high school students. As a warning, it does contain explicit violence and language.
When the enslaver sees Hester with another enslaved man, the following scene occurs, with Douglass writing:
Had he been a man of pure morals himself, he might have been thought interested in protecting the innocence of my aunt; but those who knew him will not suspect him of any such virtue. Before he commenced whipping Aunt Hester, he took her into the kitchen, and stripped her from neck to waist, leaving her neck, shoulders, and back, entirely naked. He then told her to cross her hands, calling her at the same time a d——d b—-h. After crossing her hands, he tied them with a strong rope, and led her to a stool under a large hook in the joist, put in for the purpose. He made her get upon the stool, and tied her hands to the hook… Her arms were stretched up at their full length, so that she stood upon the ends of her toes. He then said to her, “Now, you d——d b—-h, I’ll learn you how to disobey my orders!” and after rolling up his sleeves, he commenced to lay on the heavy cowskin, and soon the warm, red blood (amid heart-rending shrieks from her, and horrid oaths from him) came dripping to the floor.
Obviously, this scene is very disturbing, and it’s not the most disturbing scene in the book. But it serves a purpose: in this context, it illustrates the horrors of slavery at a time when slavery was the law of the land. While it contains bad language, including some we couldn’t say on television (and there is “worse” language throughout the book), it serves an artistic and moral purpose. While it contains “sexual content” as defined in the proposed regulations, I believe none of us would argue that the entire book should be removed from every public school. Yet the regulations allow for no nuance here: texts with this kind of language and “sexual content” are deemed inappropriate for all ages, so neither the book nor any other passage could be used, including the one the Superintendent recently shared.
Older students, like my AP Language students, can and should read difficult texts like this, and only by doing so will they learn about both history and the use of language to support a rhetorical purpose.
Some parents might not want their children to read this passage. The ideal solution would be what it has always been: for those parents to be encouraged to contact the teacher to discuss an alternate assignment.
I hope no one in this room wants to deprive students of the opportunity to learn about and from our history as a nation, but there are people in our communities who do want to censor this kind of content, for their own political purposes. As written, the proposed regulations will give these individuals of bad faith a powerful tool to enforce their own viewpoint biases— for example, by potentially banning any book with the N-word, which would include most abolitionist works and books about racial injustice in America— and to require the use of public funds and resources to do so.
Proponents of the regulations also had their say on Tuesday, including several representatives of two Moms for Liberty chapters and a group calling themselves PACE for Lexington 2. (It should be noted that York County Moms for Liberty chapter chair Jackie Terribile is on the full board, although she is not on the Policy and Legislative committee.
More importantly, we got to hear from the probable author of the regulation, Miles Coleman, a lawyer with Nelson-Mullins in Greenville, who shares Superintendent Weaver’s alma mater, Bob Jones University, and is chair of the Columbia lawyers chapter of the Federalist Society.
Coleman, who evidently came somewhat prepared for some of the talking points against the bill (including several that no one actually raised in the meeting, which I appreciated), spoke at great length on the “clarity” and “legally defensible” nature of the bill. Crucially, he took the committee through the section defining “age appropriateness”. The Bible, he explained, couldn’t possibly be challenged, because he had read The Bible, and although it contained sexual content as defined in the law, it… wasn’t explicit enough… or something.
Equally crucially, Coleman stopped explaining the age appropriate standard before he got to the part where no text can be considered age appropriate for any student if it contains content “which could not be portrayed or read aloud on broadcast television or radio during daytime hours”.
Updated to add: In the afternoon session, Coleman stuck very close to his talking points from the morning, but did expand a bit on his reasoning, though it didn’t strengthen his argument much. He read out a short passage from the Song of Solomon that he argued didn’t violate the regulation. However, many passages in The Bible and in the other works Coleman said are safe are much more graphic than the passage he read. And in any case, the regulation doesn’t say that material has to be offensive, or illegal, to be considered age-inappropriate, only that it contain sexual content. In many passages, the Bible and other works do objectively contain this kind of content, as defined in the code cited in the regulation (see footnote below).
But this was not a regulation that seems to have have been crafted to create a process that is orderly or even feasible; instead, it was clearly written with the direction of satisfying the most extreme factions of the “parent’s rights” movement. The way we can tell this is that it hands all of the power for selecting books to challenge not to district boards, not to teacher or librarians, and not to the State Board, but to any individual in the state with a bone to pick against a particular book. By making the criteria broad, the state can pretend to reject political biases while allowing Moms for Liberty and similar groups to take the microscope to any book they don’t like (because it contains LGBTQ+ themes, or “Critical Race Theory” or whatever) and claim they are challenging it for being “age inappropriate”.
In my opinion, the regulation is, in addition to being ill-considered, simply badly written. While Coleman explained during both the committee and full board meetings that many hours and countless conversations had gone into its drafting, it is riddled with spelling errors (at one point the word select is misspelled) and seems more geared toward trying to preempt inevitable First Amendment challenge than in creating a regulation that is practical. Coleman was unable to satisfactorily answer basic questions about how the State Board would, for example, be able to conduct reviews when any person in the state who has made a complaint at the district level would be able to request a formal review by the State Board if they don’t like the outcome.
More importantly, Coleman’s argument boiled down to trust me. And that brought up a central question of this “conservative” movement to ban books: what happened to being for limited government? What happened to Reagan’s famous quip, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I'm from the Government, and I'm here to help”?
I think what happened is that some “conservative” officials are allowing the loudest, most non-representative group hijack board meetings and committee meetings and hijack the narrative. Polling shows that people in South Carolina do not support this kind of censorship.
The State Board is accepting feedback on the proposed regulations, which you can read here. You can submit comments about the legislation by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org before January 22, 2024. You can also find contact information for your specific State Board member here. For more information, click here.
The regulations cite a part of state law that defines “sexual content,” but importantly they do not cite the other parts of the state law that define pornography. Under state and federal law, obviously not all sexual content is considered either pornographic or obscene. Below is the part of the law cited in the regulations, in full. It’s easy to see how this exhaustive list will apply to both things most of us agree small children shouldn’t read, and to fairly standard middle and high school-level assigned and optional readings for kids:
Section 16-15-305(C)(1) (referenced above):
(C) As used in this article:
(1) "sexual conduct" means:
(a) vaginal, anal, or oral intercourse, whether actual or simulated, normal or perverted, whether between human beings, animals, or a combination thereof;
(b) masturbation, excretory functions, or lewd exhibition, actual or simulated, of the genitals, pubic hair, anus, vulva, or female breast nipples including male or female genitals in a state of sexual stimulation or arousal or covered male genitals in a discernably turgid state;
(c) an act or condition that depicts actual or simulated bestiality, sado-masochistic abuse, meaning flagellation or torture by or upon a person who is nude or clad in undergarments or in a costume which reveals the pubic hair, anus, vulva, genitals, or female breast nipples, or the condition of being fettered, bound, or otherwise physically restrained on the part of the one so clothed;
(d) an act or condition that depicts actual or simulated touching, caressing, or fondling of, or other similar physical contact with, the covered or exposed genitals, pubic or anal regions, or female breast nipple, whether alone or between humans, animals, or a human and an animal, of the same or opposite sex, in an act of actual or apparent sexual stimulation or gratification; or
(e) an act or condition that depicts the insertion of any part of a person's body, other than the male sexual organ, or of any object into another person's anus or vagina, except when done as part of a recognized medical procedure.