ACLU of Wisconsin Files Free Speech Lawsuit Over School's Censorship of Gay-Themed Books

Affiliate: ACLU of Wisconsin
February 16, 1999 12:00 am

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MILWAUKEE, WI — The American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin today filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of a group of parents and students, challenging the removal of books with gay themes from a high school library.

In legal papers, the ACLU said that the School Board banned the books because they disapproved of their homosexual content, thereby censoring students’ access to information and violating their First Amendment rights.

“We have been extremely patient with the School Board, but the District continues to engage in censorship,” said ACLU of Wisconsin Executive Director Chris Ahmuty. “The District is harming its own students, both straight and gay. It must stop, even if that means a lawsuit.”

The controversy started in April 1998, when the parent of a former student submitted complaint forms on four books: “When Someone You Know is Gay,” “The Drowning of Stephan Jones,” “Baby Be-Bop,” and “Two Teenagers in Twenty.” Despite a recommendation from a specially convened Reconsideration Committee, the District Administrator, Vita Sherry, decided in August to ban two of the books immediately. That September, at the next School Board meeting, the other two books were banned.

In December, the School Board reconsidered their outright ban and decided to temporarily restore “Two Teenagers in Twenty” and indefinitely return “When Someone You Know is Gay” to the shelves until replacements could be found.

In explaining her decision to ban “When Someone You Know is Gay,” which the ACLU called a violation of school policy, Sherry, wrote: “The information in Chapter 6 would, I believe, lead [students] to think that they are free to interpret the biblical references in any way they wish. I believe this is a dangerous viewpoint …. This viewpoint does a disservice to [the local] religious community, and I cannot support it.”

“This is unconstitutional censorship of the most damaging kind” Ahmuty said. “As the U.S. Supreme Court has said, local school boards may not remove books from school libraries simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books, and seek by their removal to ‘prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion. ”

The ACLU’s clients in the case include three minor students and their parents and three 18-year-old students: Katherine A. Christenson and her mother, Bonnie J. Christenson, Ben Wigchers and his mother Maureen Wigchers, Benjamin S. Bolopue and his mother Bonnie L. Burke, and Jolene Wigchers, Abberlyn Morris and Ryan J. Hilke.

They are represented by ACLU of Wisconsin volunteer attorneys David Harth, Anat Hakim and Lynn Splitek from the firm of Foley and Lardner in Madison, and ACLU of Wisconsin Foundation Legal Director Peter M. Koneazny in Milwaukee.

The complaint was filed in federal District Court, Western District of Wisconsin, in Madison. Federal District Court Judge Barbara Crabb has received the case for consideration. The defendants are the Barron Area School District, the Board of Education, and Vita Sherry, the District Administrator.

The ACLU’s previous release on the case is at /news/n100698b.html.

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