Questionable Content-Remove It? Keep It?

By Lara Dresser

Tim Coggins and Suzanne Corriell, from the University of Richmond School of Law, delved into the thorny topic of First Amendment restraints on collection management choices of libraries. Selection, removal, and even relocation of books in libraries have all been challenged on First Amendment grounds.

Despite the lack of clarity and cohesion in this area of the law, Corriell and Coggins did an excellent job of summarizing the salient points from the seminal U.S. Supreme Court case on book removal, Board of Education v. Pico, as well as relevant analysis from several lower courts. In a plurality opinion, Pico stated that the school board’s removal of books was impermissible if the intent was to deny access to ideas the school officials disagreed with. The key element in this case was motivation, and many lower courts have adopted this standard as well.

The message is that removal of materials is likely to be viewed as suspect, and that motivations that discriminate based on content or viewpoint are likely to be unconstitutional. Although courts have conceded that school boards have discretion to remove materials that are “pervasively vulgar,” lacking in “educational suitability,” and contain “factual inaccuracies,” public libraries probably have less discretion in the decision to remove materials.

Helpful tips included avoiding the appearance of arbitrariness and adopting and adhering to procedures. The presentation ended with a lively discussion about the University of Richmond School of Law’s experience with a patron objection to one of their resources. The presentation sparked interesting and robust debate on a critical issue all librarians should be contemplating!

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