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BCTF Advantage

Teacher Newsmagazine  Volume 22, Number 4, January/February 2010 

Censorship in Canadian school libraries

By Richard Beaudry

Censorship in school libraries is a common practice that school librarians need to recognize, acknowledge, and resist.

Teacher-librarians must understand the legal ramifications of censorship by reviewing school selection policies in light of the recent challenges to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Courts continue to rule that schools are not exempt from upholding students’ human rights under the charter. These rights include the freedom to information and the freedom to read.

Here are important points that teacher-librarians need to take into account, if they perceive that censorship issues have arisen in their libraries:

• Local policies can assist teachers, parents, and administrators as a first step in looking at challenging materials in a school library. Here is a local example from my school district.

“SD 35 Policy No. 5062—Date Approved: December 2, 1973—Date Amended: May 15, 2001

1. That the final decision for controversial reading, listening or viewing matter shall rest with the Board after careful examination and discussion of the reading, listening or viewing matter with school officials or anyone else the Board may wish to involve.

2.That no parent or group of parents has the right to determine the reading, listening or viewing matter for students other than their own children.”

• The BC School Act also offers instructions for challenges:

“Section 76 (1) All schools and Provincial schools must be conducted on strictly secular and non-sectarian principles.

(2) The highest morality must be inculcated, but no religious dogma or creed is to be taught in a school or Provincial school.”

• The BC Civil Liberties Union (BCCLU) has information pertaining to challenges to books in BC libraries:

“Standing to invoke a review process: Adequate evidence of widespread concern

“In our Association’s view, there must be sufficient evidence of significant opposition to the material before the review process is commenced. For example, evidence of widespread concern sufficient to invoke the process could be presented in a petition. It should not be enough for the subjective views of one person to invoke an expensive and time-consuming process (as was the situation in this case—(another case in BC)). Evidence of communal concern is, of course, not enough in itself to prohibit any particular material since the views of the majority should not automatically determine access to ideas and information, even for youth.”

Review committee composition: Independent and representative members

“Most policies require a committee to review challenged material. It is important that this group of individuals be independent. That is, committee members should not be biased by any connections to other people who have a particular opinion regarding whether the challenged material should or should not be retained. For example, we were critical that the challenge policy in this case allowed the parent who challenged a book to appoint his or her own representative to the committee. Furthermore, this committee should represent a cross-section of interests including parents, teachers, librarians, administrators, and trustees and, importantly in our view, students.”

• The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified by Canada in 1990, is another document that can serve as a guideline.

“It is the responsibility of libraries to guarantee and facilitate access to all expressions of knowledge and intellectual activity, including those which some elements of society may consider to be unconventional, unpopular or unacceptable… It is the responsibility of libraries to guarantee the right of free expression by making available all the library’s public facilities and services to all individuals and groups who need them… Libraries should resist all efforts to limit the exercise of these responsibilities while recognizing the right of criticism by individuals and groups.”

• The Canadian Library Association (CLA) Statement on Intellectual Freedom

“All persons in Canada have the fundamental right, as embodied in the nation's Bill of Rights and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, to have access to all expressions of knowledge, creativity and intellectual activity, and to express their thoughts publicly. This right to intellectual freedom, under the law, is essential to the health and development of Canadian society.”

How can school districts in BC remain vigilant against censorship issues?

  1. Teacher autonomy. Before parents can enter a school library and remove a book, they must go through a process based on district policies. School administrators need to let parents know that their district has a policy in place and that it needs to be followed. As well, administrators and district managements need to understand when parents are putting pressure on teacher-librarians to simply remove books, and assist the teacher-librarian in explaining the policies in place.
  2. Each school district must have a “Request for Reconsideration” document in place (updated regularly) that permits parents to question if a book should be in the library and lets the district decide whether it should be removed. If no document or updated version is in place then one should be adopted as soon as possible.
  3. A selection policy for school libraries should be in place. A group consisting of members of the local teacher-librarians, administrators, and, possibly, board management should get together and decide on such a policy to suit all schools in the district.

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