Prejudicial Book Rating Systems Are a Form of Censorship

Censorship, Intellectual Freedom Issues

By Deborah Caldwell-Stone, Joyce, McIntosh, and Eric Stroshane

Five star rating system with no stars selected.

Recently, there have been numerous efforts to require the adoption of content rating systems for books provided to children and young adult readers in school and public libraries, including in Lancaster County (PA), Dixfield (ME), and the entire state of Texas. Those who advocate for these rating systems assume that they, or the organization they support, should determine what is appropriate or inappropriate for other individuals and families to read, and also assume that other individuals and families need direction in making decisions about the books they read or the resources they use.

As such, these book ratings systems are a tool for censorship. They operate from the presumption that users’ rights to access a broad range of materials should be restricted based on a subjective value judgment that the content, language, themes, or views of the author or books are inherently inappropriate for some audiences or age groups. These systems are intended to bias or prejudice attitudes and decisions about reading materials and stigmatize works that address the lives and experiences of persons and families who do not share the values of those creating the ratings systems. They facilitate indoctrination, not education.

A ratings system that claims to rate the contents of books can only reflect the subjective opinion of the individual reviewer. This is especially problematic when reviewers are not professional librarians or educators trained to consider individual readers’ needs in light of their educational achievement, interests, and experience, but instead are reviewing books with the goal of advancing a moral, political, or religious agenda.

The use of such a prejudicial ratings system in the library assumes that an individual or group should have the authority to determine what is appropriate for every family in the community and may give the impression that the library endorses or favors specific viewpoints, value systems, or religious beliefs over other viewpoints, value systems, and religious beliefs. This is problematic for publicly-funded institutions, as labeling materials based on the adoption, enforcement, or endorsement of a biased ratings system may be unconstitutional viewpoint-based discrimination.

For example, there are groups offering ratings systems that argue books that include LGBTQIA+ themes are inappropriate for any young reader, or even go so far as to claim that such books are legally obscene or harmful to minors. That is untrue. Acting on such claims or adopting such a rating system could constitute unconstitutional discrimination. Similarly, claims that works presenting accurate medical information, depicting human anatomy, or which include literary scenes depicting the variety and range of human relationships are illegal are also unsupported in law.

Any decision to restrict access to titles because of an individual or group’s objections to the ideas or views expressed in them may constitute unconstitutional censorship in violation of the First Amendment. Courts have long held the boards of schools and public libraries may not restrict or remove access to books when the “substantial motivation” for doing so is the board’s disagreement with the ideas expressed in the books (see: Case v. Unified School Dist., 908 F. Supp. 864 (D. Kan. 1995); Board of Education, Island Trees NY v. Pico, 457 U.S. 853 (1982) and Counts v. Cedarville School District, 295 F. Supp. 2d 996 (W.D. Ark. 2003); and Sund v. City of Wichita Falls, Texas, 121 F. Supp. 2d 530 (N.D. Texas, 2000)).

More recently, the Office of Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education has expressed its concern that school districts removing or restricting access to books that include themes addressing race, racism, or the experiences of LGBTQIA+ persons is discriminatory activity that creates a hostile educational environment for students based on sex, race, color, or national origin under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. They are encouraging students to report such activity to the Office of Civil Rights for investigation and have created a toolkit for educators on creating inclusive nondiscriminatory school environments.

ALA policies intended to guide best practices in the provision of library services for all distinguish between viewpoint-neutral finding aids and those labels or ratings systems designed to restrict access, based on a value judgment that the content, language, or themes of the resource, or the background or views of the creator of the resource, render it inappropriate or offensive for all or certain groups of readers. Viewpoint-neutral finding aids allow readers to locate materials based on subject and genre without attempting to persuade the reader about what is appropriate, or endorse a particular viewpoint, or appear to establish the library’s preference for certain perspectives, content, or topics over others.

Additional reading from ALA:

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.