Medford School District book removal amounts to 'censorship', says state library association
In April, a graphic novel version of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian story The Handmaid’s Tale was pulled from the shelves of North Medford High School after a parent complained about images of nudity, sexual assault, and suicide.
UPDATED: JUNE 3, 2022 2:30 p.m.
JPR’s Erik Neumann spoke with Emily O’Neal, co-chair of the Oregon Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee about censorship and their investigation into the book’s removal.
Emily O’Neal: Unfortunately, we have not been able to get a lot of information from the Medford School District, which is, part of what is the concern. Typically, when a library – whether it's a school library or a public library – experiences a challenge for materials, they have a policy that is well-posted and well-known on how they will look into the matter. Medford had a policy that was previously available and at some point over, we believe, the last school district that policy was taken down. So, we don't actually know what process was gone through to remove the title.
The ultimate area of concern is that it does seem like the material was removed due to the content. So it was a content-based restriction which, in library land, is censorship. That's the perfect definition of what we actively choose not to do, and believe it’s against the rights of Americans, [in order] to have access to materials. That's where the concern lies. We also have, just professionally, the notion that what is concerning to one is not necessarily what is concerning to all. And so, part of the concern, as well, is that we believe that this challenge request came from a single parent or maybe a small cohort of parents, but we believe it's a single parent, and that parent really should not ever be able to speak for all parents of the community.
Erik Neumann: And I should clarify that the text version of The Handmaid's Tale was not removed from the library, just this graphic novel version, which is kind of like an expanded comic book.
EO: I'm glad that you mentioned that. That also does raise some additional concerns that we have. Graphic novels are known to be a special and important learning tool for, especially, those that are having reading difficulties. If you think of folks that are reading-delayed or dyslexic, having that graphic novel version helps them gain context and better understand what it is that they're reading. So, we actually do have some concern about equity in the removing of the graphic novel version of this title.
EN: So maybe it's worth backing up, I assume there are guidelines that determine which books go into libraries in the first place right?
EO: There should be, yeah. So, similar to a policy that helps us know what we do when a title has been challenged, we, as libraries, should all have what we call “collection development policies.” So again, whether you're a school library or a public library, you should have guidelines that determine what it is that you are buying and what it is that you are not buying, and pretty much everything should follow those guidelines. If a challenge were to come forward, the expectation is that you would determine whether or not that title still fit your collection development policy and make that determination in a more objective way rather than a subjective way. That's typically how we look at what to buy, what to remove, and how to manage challenges.
EN: Are you seeing an increase in how often books are being challenged or removed from libraries around Oregon right now?
EO: Yes. There's a pretty active and known national trend right now of book banning. ALA [American Library Association] has noticed a remarkable increase in book banning over the last year. They actually even put out a statement really advocating against censorship and really highlighting their concerns around the book banning that's happening nationwide. It is happening here in Oregon as well. We see a pretty interesting, I would say, correlation between our bipartisan world that we’re in and a direct correlation on what individuals in our populations feel comfortable with seeing in their libraries. So yes, very much, we are seeing lots of challenges, typically because it doesn't fit within one person's worldview.
EN: Thanks Emily for taking the time to talk with me today. I really appreciate it.
EO: You're welcome.
Editor's note: Medford School District administrators did not respond to an interview request from JPR seeking their explanation about the book's removal.
On Friday, June 3, 2022 a district spokesperson responded with a written statement about the decision to remove the book stating:
"The district, in accordance with policy IIAC, determined the graphic novel does not meet the needs of the school nor the needs of individual students...The District supports the principles of freedom inherent in the constitution of the United States and expressed in the Library Bill of Rights, The Freedom to Read and the Statement on Intellectual Freedom."
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.