Why We’ll Always Need Libraries (and Librarians)

In this second installment of our two-part series celebrating Banned Books Week, I sat down with Peter Coyl, a District Manager for the Dallas Public Library.

Peter Coyl applied for his first library card when his parents realized they could neither afford nor store all the books he wanted to read. The library was a magical place for Peter, where everything he needed was right there at his fingerprints, and he loved the library so much that he hasn’t left since.

Peter has worked in libraries since the tender age of 15, shelving children’s picture books at first, then working as a circulation clerk, a bookmobile driver, and a school librarian in Taiwan. For the last four years Peter has served at the Dallas Public Library, the first library in the country to introduce an online computer catalog, all the way back in the 1980s.

Peter Coyl is a district manager for the Dallas Public Library system. (Stella M. Chavez, KERA News)

The Dallas Public Library is a huge and sophisticated institution, but Peter and his colleagues still have to make choices as to which books will make it onto the shelves. For the most part those decisions are based on popularity, patron requests, book reviews in trade publications, and quality. (Though Peter is quick to point out that if they aren’t purchasing items they sometimes disagree with, “then we aren’t doing our jobs.”) Additionally, the DPL is a member of the Online Computer Library Center, a global network of partnered libraries, so if a patron is looking for a book the DPL doesn’t stock, they’ll be able to fly it in from somewhere in the world.

If the DPL shelves a book a patron finds objectionable, the challenge process is at least as exacting as it is for school libraries. Most objections are made in person to desk staff, but should a patron wish to pursue it further, a form can be filled out. A staff committee then convenes to read the book and to review trade publications, book reviews and other research, at which point a recommendation is made to the Associate Director, who makes the final decision. During his four years at the DPL, only a handful of challenges have gone the distance, and none of them have been successful.

While book challenges remain a serious matter, Peter and his colleagues are at least equally concerned about other issues affecting the library: the privacy of their patrons in the wake of 9/11, the changing nature of censorship, and the evolution of the library itself as it strives to stay ahead of new technologies.

In the aftermath of 9/11, America’s librarians—not generally known as a vocal or combative bunch—went toe-to-toe with the federal government over their patrons’ right to privacy. Libraries throughout the country, including Peter’s, removed sign-in sheets for Internet access and required patrons to opt in if they wanted the library to keep track of their reading histories. In Connecticut, FBI agents demanded patron records from a handful of librarians, and then slapped them with an Orwellian gag order preventing them from even acknowledging the demand. Ultimately the gag order was lifted and the federal government dropped its case, but the attacks on individual privacy, much less the debate, are far from over.

The "Connecticut Four", from left to right: Janet Nocek, Peter Chase, George Christian, and Barbara Bailey (Robert Deutsch/USA Today)
The “Connecticut Four”, from left to right: Janet Nocek, Peter Chase, George Christian, and Barbara Bailey (Robert Deutsch/USA Today)

The nature of censorship is changing as well. Thanks to the Internet, preventing people from having access to books becomes less practical with each passing day, but attempts to silence speakers are more numerous than ever. Untenured professors in fear for their jobs are redesigning their syllabi to remove anything that might potentially offend. In Connecticut, students are trying to shut down their own newspaper over a single objectionable op-ed. And the habit of succumbing to protests over invited speakers has led the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) to refer to the end of the academic year as “disinvitation season.”

Peter finds this last trend particularly onerous. He cites the case of Bill Konigsburg, an award-winning author who was invited to speak at a Houston high school about the Trevor Project, an organization that provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention for LGBT youth. Once the principal learned Konigsburg was gay, the talk was rescheduled for after school hours, all the other schools in the area had declined his visit, and he was asked not to focus on the fact that he was gay. As his mission was to prevent suicides among LGBT youth, Konigsburg naturally ignored the request.


All that said, the future of information, and therefore of the library, remains bright. Peter notes that librarians have always prepared for innovations in information technology, and embraced them. (Though he does admit they did skip the laser disc fad.)

No longer is the library a hushed and unsmiling place of sacred scholarship, but rather a place where children can be read to by their favorite authors, where half of Americans go for their internet access, a place where a community can come together and learn, and share what it has learned. “No matter how much information is out there,” Peter concludes, “people will still need libraries, and librarians.”

Librarians (and Captain Underpants) to the Rescue!

To celebrate Banned Books Week, this year I sat down with three librarians to peek behind the curtain and examine the ways by which library books are chosen and challenged; I also wanted to get the inside scoop on what the future of the library looks like. This first installment of the two-part series features two local school librarians in Houston. Much like the superheroes they are, the two preferred to keep their true identities concealed, so I will be referring to them as “Barbara Gordon” and “Judy Dark,” which happen to be the librarian alter-egos of the superheroes “Oracle” and “Luna Moth” (our apologies to D.C. Comics and Michael Chabon). Our next installment will feature my conversation with Peter Coyl, District Manager of the Dallas Public Library.

Librarians save lives: by handing the right book, at the right time, to a kid in need.

—Judy Blume

I’ve never known a bad librarian. I’ve certainly known a stern librarian or two, but never one who was incompetent or indifferent, never one who failed to appreciate the seriousness of their responsibilities or embrace the joys of learning and sharing knowledge.

However, until I sat down with Judy Dark and Barbara Gordon, two school librarians from Houston, Texas, I’d never met librarians so positively gleeful about their roles and responsibilities. Throughout the course of our conversation, it became clear that, perhaps unlike any other profession, the choice to become a librarian was more a calling than a job, and that perhaps the only thing librarians love as much as doing their jobs is talking about them.

Libraries are finite in size, and one of the librarian’s most daunting tasks is to decide which of the tens of millions of potential books to put on their limited amount of shelf space. Dark and Gordon explain that books are generally selected according to three criteria: 1) If the book is age-appropriate; 2) If the book has been well reviewed; and 3) if the book will inspire children to read.

Of course, “age appropriateness” means different things to different people, and while Dark and Gordon take into account the maturity of the themes and the complexity of the language, they tend to give their kids the benefit of the doubt when it comes to what they can handle. Librarians are also thorough in their consideration of evaluations for each book; it’s a much less grievous sin to stock a controversial book than it is a bad one.


However, a book’s ability to inspire is perhaps its most precious—as well as its most contentious—characteristic. At its core, the role of a school librarian is to inculcate a love of learning, and they are willing to fulfill that role by (nearly) any means necessary. To give an example, parents might not think too highly, say, of Captain Underpants and the Perilous Plot of Professor Poopypants, but according to Gordon, “the kids go absolutely crazy over it.” And when there’s a little distance between what inspires children and what their parents might not approve of, librarians like Dark and Gordon have to be prepared to defend the books they’ve selected.

The banning of books is both a morally and politically charged business, and there’s little librarians take more seriously. The process for a school book challenge is thorough, meticulous, diligent, and demanding. If a parent chooses to challenge a book, they must first fill out a challenge form and submit it to a committee consisting of librarians and other school staff. Each committee member reads the book, reviews of the book, insider publications, and other research, after which the committee reconvenes for an interview with the parent, where objections are raised and addressed. Should the parent wish to continue with their challenge, the final determination is made by either a district librarian, a principal, or a superintendent, depending on the school or school district.

For the most part, parents who request challenge forms rarely submit them. For those who do, most are either swayed by the committee or request that their own child—and not other people’s children—be restricted from checking out the book. Some parents refuse to read the book they’ve challenged, and as a result their objections are naturally ill-informed, poorly researched, and unlikely to sway any of the decision-makers in the challenge process.

Dark beams with pride when she says, “Nope, I’ve never lost a challenge.”

Gordon was quick to point out that book bans usually backfire. “The book you remove from the library,” says Gordon, “is the one all the kids want to read.” And it’s true; even in the grown-up world, book bans can do wonders for sales and circulation.


As a matter of fact, the proliferation of new technologies has rendered book challenges rarer than ever. Today kids are downloading reading material directly to their tablets, and the original objective of book bans—to keep the public from having access to a book—is a practical impossibility in the 21st century.

The librarian’s traditional responsibility as a guardian of learning is thus in constant flux. I asked Dark and Gordon if they were concerned about the future of their profession and the institution where they practice it. Both replied, emphatically, “No.” Libraries are stimulating spaces where kids can brainstorm, collaborate, and create. Dark and Gordon are no longer curators of knowledge, they said, but rather guides. They teach children how to sift through and make sense of the almost infinite knowledge available to them, how to seek out and verify sources. As the author Neil Gaiman once noted, “Google can give you 100,000 answers, but a librarian can give you the right one.”

Let’s Assume the Kids (and Ahmed) Are Alright, Not Criminals

Last Sunday night in Irving, Texas, a 14-year-old boy named Ahmed Mohamed got bored. But instead of firing up his X-Box for a few rounds of Counterstrike or checking up on his fantasy football progress, Ahmed decided to build a digital clock from scratch. He likes to tinker.

By now you’ve probably heard what happened next: When Ahmed took his masterpiece to school the next day to impress his teachers, the clock was confiscated and Ahmed was pulled out of class. He was interrogated by five different police officers. His belongings were searched. He was threatened with expulsion. He was accused over and over and over again of wanting to build a bomb, or wanting people to think he’d built a bomb. He repeatedly requested to contact his parents, and those requests were denied.

Instead, law enforcement agents handcuffed the frightened high school freshman wearing a NASA t-shirt, frog-marched him out of school, and remanded him to a juvenile detention center where they snapped mug shots and took his fingerprints. The school suspended Ahmed for three days, and until the story went viral, police were considering charges.

How could this have happened?

The first and most obvious answer is racism and Islamophobia. Ahmed is Muslim, and Irving has something of a checkered history with the Muslim community. In 2012, the Irving Independent School District commissioned a 72-page report to determine if its curriculum was too pro-Islam. (It wasn’t.) In a response to a local mosque setting up a mediation panel for its worshippers, earlier this year the Irving city council voted to support an anti-Islamic bill that would forbid Texas judges from applying Shariah law in their decisions (This was, of course, already the law.)

Islamophobia, and probably racism, certainly played a role in Ahmed’s ordeal, but the fact is overzealous administrators, zero-tolerance policies, and law enforcement officers ill-equipped to deal with schoolchildren have compromised educational environments throughout the country.

If we’re handcuffing autistic children at the elbows or throwing them in jail overnight, then we’re failing them. If we’re hitting kids with felony weapons charges for bringing fishing tackle to school, then we’re failing them. And if we’re using suspensions (which absolutely do not work) against students who build clocks, or twirl pencils, or write about pot, or chew their Pop-Tarts into the shape of a gun, then we’re failing them.

The Texas Commission on Law Enforcement is currently developing a specialized police-training program for officers who work in our schools. The sooner, the better. Officers need to understand that they’re dealing with children rather than criminals. They need to ensure that a child’s right to contact their parents is as sacrosanct as any other individual’s right to speak to an attorney. And above all, they need to undertake a comprehensive review of their racial-profiling practices and cultural-sensitivity training — oh yeah, and their use of handcuffs.

Ahmed suffered through a terrifying, traumatizing, and unjust ordeal. Yet because of the mass exposure of what he endured, he’s received invitations to the White House, Facebook headquarters, and the Google science fair. I’m fairly certain that Ahmed is going to come out of this just fine. He’s called it the American dream come true and for him it seems to be so.

For too many others — the ones whose stories won’t go viral — the possibility of the American nightmare remains too real.

Street Signs and Tree Stumps: Remembering Sandra Bland

In a Facebook post earlier this month, the Waller County Sheriff’s Office expressed its “condolences to the Sandra Bland family for their loss.” The sentiments would be welcome, were they sincere.

Were they sincere, those condolences might have been accompanied by good faith efforts to address the shortcomings of the Waller County jail system that contributed to Sandra Bland’s senseless death. The county might, say, have undertaken a review and a vigorous reform of its mental health training program for jail staff. It might have created safeguards to ensure it complied with state standards for inmate monitoring. It might have given Sandra Bland’s family assurances that it was doing absolutely everything in its power to see to it that no one ever died in custody again.

But the Waller County Sheriff Office’s condolences were not followed by any of these things. Instead, its Facebook post immediately turned to how it had thrown some protesters out of the building.

In fact, the Waller County Sheriff’s Office has been much more preoccupied with its protestors than it has with its own deficiencies. When demonstrators gathered outside the building, the Sheriff’s Office erected barricades. When they gathered beneath a nearby tree to seek relief from the blistering summer heat, the Sheriff’s Office cut the tree down. And in one disturbing and frankly bizarre exchange, Waller County Sheriff Glenn Smith told clergywoman Hannah Bonner—who had been keeping vigil for nearly a month—to “go back to that church of Satan that you run.”


It’s clear that depriving citizens of their liberty—particularly when they’ve not been convicted of a crime, as Sandra Bland had not—is not a responsibility that the Waller County Sheriff’s Office is willing to take seriously. Try as it might, making protestors go away will not make the problem go away, because the protestors are not the problem.

In fact, the tragedy of Sandra Bland’s last days showcases nearly everything that’s broken with the criminal justice system in Texas. When law enforcement officers unilaterally escalate citizen interactions to the point of violence; when they use perceived disrespect as an excuse to exercise excessive force; when they imprison someone under a bond system that transparently discriminates against the poor; or when they fail to monitor the people they’ve detained—then we will continue to lurch from one agonizing injustice to the next.

It is of some comfort, at least, that Texas lawmakers from both sides of the political aisle are clamoring for answers. And the Prairie View City Council recently voted to change the name of University Boulevard to “Sandra Bland Parkway.”

The Waller County Sheriff’s Office will undoubtedly continue to wish its protestors away, but the memory of Sandra Bland and of the injustices wrought upon her are here to stay.

This Isn’t the Training Our Police Officers Need

This week the Houston Police Officers’ Union invited controversial psychology professor William Lewinski to conduct training seminars for 140 of its officers. Unfortunately it won’t be the sort of training that will rebuild community trust in law enforcement or save lives. Quite the opposite.

Lewinski’s publications and seminars are popular in law enforcement circles, but unfortunately his “training” doesn’t teach police officers how to better serve their communities. Instead, he teaches them to shoot first and often, and then provides them with the tools to justify those shootings after the tragic fact.

In his study on officer reaction times, Lewinski concludes that a cop can’t afford to wait until he sees a gun in order to react to its presence. (In other words, “If I see the gun, I’m already dead.”) In another study, Lewinski takes 4,000 words to explain why it’s almost always reasonable for a cop to shoot someone in the back. And in his testimony before the President’s Task Force on Policing, Lewinski laid out ten reasons why the footage from body cameras is not to be trusted.

In other words, if a cop stops you and you are unarmed, in Lewinski’s world it’s perfectly justifiable for that cop to shoot you in the back and blame “muscle memory” or “inattentional blindness” to explain away any incriminating video evidence in the ensuing investigation.

Lewinski is fond of likening shooting scenarios to baseball games. As he told deputy sheriffs in Los Angeles, “a batter can’t wait for a ball to cross home plate before deciding whether that’s something to swing at.” Of course, the analogy collapses once we realize that the consequence of a late swing is a foul tip to the cheap seats in right field, and not, say, the senseless execution of an unarmed citizen by an agent of the state.

Tragically, this sort of thing happens all too often. Man shot for reaching for the driver’s license he’s just been asked to produce. Man shot for failing to produce driver’s license. Man shot twice in the back while running away. Man shot ten times while seeking assistance after a car accident. Man shot. Man shot. Man shot.

Lewinski’s work appears either on his own website or in publications like Police Marksman magazine, and never in peer-reviewed psychology journals. The Justice Department concluded that his findings “lack foundation and reliability.” The American Journal of Psychology has derided his work as “pseudoscience.”

Lewinski and his training regimen are a particularly extreme example of a perverse and all too common law enforcement attitude that perceives civilians first and foremost as enemy combatants. It’s a world where every gesture is a threat, where every unseen hand is brandishing a gun, and where “to protect and serve” is just something that’s painted on a cruiser door.

If we ever hope to change the way police interact with vulnerable communities, we must redesign officer training. In a recent survey of 281 law enforcement agencies nationwide, the Police Executive Research Forum determined that on average officers receive 58 hours of weapons training, 49 hours of defensive tactical training, only eight hours of de-escalation training, and only a negligible amount, if any, of training on how to handle the mentally ill. If all you have is a hammer, as the saying goes, then everything looks like a nail. And if all you have is a gun, then everyone looks like a target.

We have to turn those numbers around if we ever hope to reform law enforcement culture, and the President’s report on 21st Century Policing is an excellent place to start. Police departments need to engage in meaningful dialogue with the people they are sworn to protect. Law enforcement agencies must adopt zero-tolerance policies towards racial profiling, and to increase training in implicit bias, use of force, de-escalation techniques, and how to approach people in states of mental distress. Most fundamentally, officers need to begin thinking of themselves as guardians who serve their communities rather than as warriors who occupy them.

None of that is likely to happen as long as police departments continue to listen to William Lewinski and his ilk.

A Hesitant Celebration of the Voting Rights Act’s 50th Anniversary

The 5th Circuit’s Ruling on Texas’s Voter ID Law is Welcome, but Not Enough

It was the best of times, and it was the worst of times.

It began slowly enough, with boycotts and bus rides and sit-ins and strikes, and built over time to the clamorous and inexorable crescendo of a beleaguered people fed up with centuries of voicelessness. It was a beautiful thing to behold.

But the fiefdoms of institutionalized racism fought back, with high-pressure hoses and attack dogs and cudgels and guns, leaving a host of martyrs in their wake: Jimmie Lee Jackson, James Reeb, Harry and Harriet Moore, Viola Liuzzo, Vernon Dahmer, and four little girls blown to pieces in a church while changing into their choir robes.

But in the end these martyrs and those who marched with them achieved what was thought by many to be unthinkable: the passage of what was rightly heralded as the singlemost effective piece of civil rights legislation in American history.

As we celebrate the Voting Rights Act’s 50th anniversary, we wish we could say that the landscape had changed. But we’re still lobbing tear gas grenades at peaceful protesters, still killing unarmed black men in the streets, and still doing our level best to keep people of color out of the voting booth.

In 2013 the Supreme Court ruled in Shelby v. Holder that “history did not end in 1965” and struck down portions of the Voting Rights Act it deemed outmoded and unnecessary. Specifically, it removed the “preclearance condition” by which nine states that had systematically disenfranchised black voters were required to submit their voting laws to the federal government for approval before they could be enacted. Texas was among them.

Almost immediately after the decision was handed down, Texas began enforcing the harshest voter ID law in the country that at a stroke disenfranchised 600,000 black and Latino voters. It became instantly clear that the Supreme Court was correct in one sense: history hadn’t ended in 1965. But it also hadn’t changed much.

On Wednesday the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals recognized that Texas’s voter ID law was discriminatory and violated the Voting Rights Act. This was a welcome victory for the hundreds of thousands of Texans who had seen their voting rights stripped away in the last election. But the Court stopped short of finding that the law intentionally discriminates, and the preclearance condition is still absent from federal law. The ruling came too late, and didn’t go nearly far enough.

That the Voting Rights Act passed at all was just shy of a miracle. But we don’t quite require a miracle to restore it to its former glory. All we require is leadership. Congress must work to reinstate the preclearance condition, which is self-evidently every bit as necessary as it was in 1965. Every American’s voice deserves to be heard.

Mark Humphries is the Writer and Content Developer for the ACLU of Texas.

Discrimination is not a Houston Value

The Most Diverse City in the Country Needs an Equal Rights Ordinance

Houston is the most diverse city in these United States. Just how diverse? We have no racial or ethnic majority. We have one of the largest—and quite frankly, one of the most architecturally breathtaking—Hindu temples in the country. Houston hosts the only livestock show and rodeo where you can hear over 100 languages spoken. We have the highest concentration of refugees in the U.S, from 78 countries around the world. And this year’s Pride Parade boasted a crowd 700,000 strong.

That’s just shy of 10 Reliant Stadiums at capacity.

Given our lively, kaleidoscopic diversity, one would think non-discrimination would be prominently enshrined in municipal law. And it was, for a time, until forces opposed to Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) secured a victory in the Texas Supreme Court to force it onto the ballot in November.

The fight to keep HERO alive is about Houston values—and the principle that everyone should be treated equally and fairly under the law. In order to see that the ordinance remains on the books, we must first understand exactly what it does.

First of all, the anti-discrimination ordinance protects all Houstonians from discrimination, whether they’ve been singled out because of their sex, race, sexual orientation, religion, or gender identity. It protects veterans who don’t want to be discriminated against because they served their country. It protects pregnant women, the disabled, and the elderly. And without it, a Houston company’s best and most conscientious employee can be legally fired simply because he or she chooses to come out to co-workers.

Of course, some of these categories are protected by other laws, but HERO provides a local venue for resolving discrimination complaints that is timely, effective, and affordable. Without the benefit of HERO, those who are fired or denied housing or public accommodations simply for being who they are literally have to make a federal case out of it. More often than not this process requires a lawyer, and the time it takes to right the wrong—which is by no means a foregone conclusion—is usually measured in years.

While Houston is proud of its diversity, discrimination remains a reality: Between the day HERO was passed and the day it initially went into effect, 54% of the discrimination complaints lodged with the Office of the Inspector General related to race, 17% to gender, 15% to age, and 4% to sexual orientation or gender identity. Our gay, lesbian, and transgender neighbors need the anti-discrimination protections the ordinance brings, but it simply isn’t true that its scope is limited to them. The Houston Equal Rights Ordinance protects everyone.

HERO protects you.

This is why HERO enjoys widespread support from over 80 current or former city officials, from community organizations and non-profits, and over 70 local faith leaders. It has been endorsed by the Greater Houston Partnership, the Houston Association of Realtors, Rice University, the League of United Latin American Citizens, and the NAACP.

And no wonder. Diversity is one of Houston’s greatest strengths, and it’s essential we do everything in our power to preserve and protect that diversity. HERO promotes what Houstonians value most: fair treatment for all, no matter who you are.

Supreme Court 101: What the Marriage Equality Ruling Teaches Us About Democracy

Now that the dust has settled and the hand-wringing over the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges seems mostly to have subsided, it’s worth reflecting on what the case means. In the last month, we’ve heard from pundits and politicians of every stripe, who rushed to explain the decision’s import. For some, the recognition of same-sex marriage in all fifty states ushered in a new era of equality, while others warned that it heralded the end of the Republic.

Of course, the marriage ruling was certainly historic—no one would contest that—but it wasn’t extraordinary. You wouldn’t have known it to listen to the talking heads on TV, but the Supreme Court didn’t do anything unusual when it ruled that same-sex marriage bans violate the Constitution. To understand why, we waded through the hype and the history to get to the heart of the Supreme Court’s role in our constitutional democracy.

Did the Supreme Court ignore the will of the people?

The stakes are too high and the issue too important to simply cede the will of the people to unaccountable justices. –Rick Santorum on Obergefell v. Hodges

No matter how much the Supreme Court seeks to sugarcoat its bitter pill of tyranny, the people of the South will not swallow it.Marvin Griffin, former governor of Georgia, on Brown v. Board of Education

The Supreme Court’s job is to interpret the Constitution, and the Constitution is the supreme law of the land. At its heart, the Constitution is a series of protections that keep government from infringing core freedoms. Some freedoms every American can recite—like freedom of speech, assembly, and religion. Others like the right to be treated equally by government actors and the right not to have liberty abridged without due process may be less well known. But if the majority passes a law that violates any of those freedoms, it’s the Court’s job to strike it down.

So yes, sometimes the Supreme Court ignores the will of the majority in order to protect the constitutional rights of individuals.

This is a feature, not a bug.

But how can the Supreme Court ignore centuries of tradition?

I am disappointed the Supreme Court today chose to change the centuries-old definition of marriage as between one man and one woman. –Rick Perry, on Obergefell v. Hodges

To many people this decision is contrary to a way of life and violates the way in which they have thought since 1619.Cavalier Daily (University of Virginia newspaper) on Brown v. Board of Education

Actually, the Supreme Court does this all the time, once we all realize that what we’ve been doing for centuries violates those rights the Supreme Court is entrusted to protect. Societies evolve, the authors of the Constitution knew that, and they composed a document that would allow for that development. For example, the Constitution forbids “cruel and unusual punishment”. Once upon a time that did not include pillorying, flogging, branding, and chopping people’s ears off.

Okay, fine…but where can I find marriage equality in the Constitution?

[The Court] fabricated a new constitutional right in 2015. –Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, on Obergefell v. Hodges

The justices produced a non-text-based and generalized right.Catholic Education Resource Center, on Griswold v. Connecticut (recognizing a constitutional right to decide whether and when to have a child and striking down a ban on contraception)

You can’t. But what you will find in the Constitution are the rights to equal protection and due process, which Justice Kennedy cited in his opinion on marriage equality. The Supreme Court didn’t pluck a brand new right out of thin air that allows same-sex couples to marry, but instead applied the rights already guaranteed by the Constitution to marriage bans that were passed in just the last two decades.

I’m fed up with these activist judges. How do you know they didn’t get it wrong?

This is judicial activism at its worst. –Ted Cruz, on Obergefell v. Hodges

[This case] encourages Americans to bypass the ballot and seek to press their political agenda in the courts.J. Jarvie Wilkinson III, on D.C. v. Heller

“Judicial activism” is a term people generally use when they don’t agree with a Supreme Court decision, while “judicial restraint” is the one they use when they do.

But the fact of the matter is that whether they’re exercising “activism” or “restraint”, the Supreme Court does get it wrong sometimes. They got it wrong in Korematsu v. U.S. when they decided that rounding up Japanese Americans for being Japanese was perfectly constitutional. They got it wrong in Minor v. Happersett when they denied women the right to vote. And they got it unanimously wrong in Schenck v. U.S. when they decided that the peaceful distribution of anti-war leaflets was a crime. (A bit of trivia: Schenck brought us the now-famous refrain of “shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theater”, which refers to that peaceful distribution of anti-war leaflets and not, as one might think, to shouting “fire” in a crowded theater.)

Aha! I knew it! Since they sometimes get it wrong, can’t we just ignore them?

One thing I am angry about is this notion of judicial supremacy, where if the court makes a decision, I hear governors and even some aspirants to the presidency say, ‘Well, that’s settled, it’s the law of the land.’ No, it’s not the law of the land. –Mike Huckabee, on Obergefell v. Hodges

I do not recognize, I have never recognized, I cannot recognize that what the Supreme Court says is the law of the land. –Virginia Gov. Lindsay Almond on Brown v. Board of Education

No, you can’t. The Constitution is uncontestably the supreme law of the land, and since the Supreme Court is tasked with interpreting what the Constitution says, Supreme Court decisions are in fact the law of the land.

That doesn’t mean that debate ceases or that the political process is at an end. Sometimes, as debate continues, the Court changes its mind. This can take some time. In Plessy v. Ferguson, for example, the Court decided in 1896 that “separate but equal” racial segregation was constitutional, and only changed its mind sixty years later when it handed down Brown v. Board of Education.

In other cases, we amend the Constitution itself. This is intentionally very hard to do, and requires that just about everybody agree to it. This is how women gained the right to vote in the U.S., incidentally. The Court decided in Minor v. Happersett that it was constitutional to deny women the right to vote, which was the law of the land until the 19th Amendment was passed in 1920.

Balderdash! Can’t we just get rid of the Supreme Court and save some money?

If we want to save some money, lets just get rid of the court! –Bobby Jindal, on Obergefell v. Hodges.

First of all, the Supreme Court doesn’t cost that much money, and this year they even volunteered to cut their own budget, which isn’t something you see all that often in Washington. (Charmingly, last year’s budget included the replacement of an air conditioning system that was over seventy five years old, and the only person who knew how to repair it was a retiree in West Virginia.)

Secondly, getting rid of the Supreme Court would mean shredding the Constitution into itty bitty bits.

Third…do you really want to get rid of the Supreme Court? Really? Are you sure there’s nothing you might need the Court’s protection for? What if a judge decides to throw you in jail for filming on a public sidewalk? What if someone sues you over your Yelp review? What if the cops decide to arrest you just for knowing what your rights are? What if the town you live in decides to ban all guns?

The system isn’t perfect, certainly. But sometimes all that’s standing between you and oppression are those “five unelected judges.”

Democracy in Action at Hood County Book Banning Hearing

County governments almost never find themselves on the front lines of constitutional struggles, but you wouldn’t have known that had you attended the Hood County Commissioners’ Court hearing last Tuesday morning. At issue was the attempt by some local residents to remove from the public library two LGBT-tolerant children’s books, Princess Boy and This Day in June. After hours of impassioned debate, in the end what I witnessed was a big victory for the First Amendment over the threat of censorship.

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision on marriage equality, LGBT issues are a contentious topic in the great state of Texas, and Hood County is no exception. The Hood County clerk, for example, made national headlines within the last month after being sued by a same-sex couple over her refusal to issue them a marriage license. Against that backdrop, the members of the Commissioners’ Court prepared for a long and vigorous debate, moved the item to the top of the agenda, and removed the time limit so that every resident of Hood County who wanted to could be heard.

I’ve seen sensationalist headlines describing conservative Christians “storming” the county meeting to try and remove the books, but that’s not quite what I witnessed. In fact, time and time again, residents approached the podium, asserted their Christian values, their deep roots in Hood County, their understanding of why someone would want the books censored, and then turned around and affirmed their neighbors’ constitutional right to have access to the books. The speakers weren’t just ticking off a list of politicized talking points. Rather, one by one the people of Granbury, Texas gave impassioned personal testimonies in defense of their venerated First Amendment.

One woman holding a stack of children’s Bible stories explained how one parent’s right to check out My Princess Boy was the same right that allows her to check out a children’s book explaining Noah’s Ark. A 96 year-old gentleman approached the panel on crutches, said he was “the most conservative person in the room,” and then pleaded with the court not to give in to censorship. Another resident with fire in her eyes and a thick Texas twang demanded that the books stay right where they are because she has a son who is “as gay as the day is long, and he is MY princess boy.”.

After three long hours and a seemingly endless list of speakers, the Commissioners’ Court made its ruling. Conscious of their grave civic responsibility, the commissioners explained that the books had to stay because each one of them had pledged to uphold the Constitution, and if they weren’t prepared to do just that then they would have to find a different job.

We’re told that the next fight for LGBT equality will be over “religious refusal” laws. But listening to the impassioned voices of the residents of Granbury, as well as to the commissioners entrusted to govern them, I’m confident that most Americans already know that the Constitution, much like the public library, has room enough for everyone.

Joe Swanson is a community organizer for the ACLU of Texas.

Banning Books in Texas

Some residents in Granbury, Texas, are lobbying to remove Princess Boy and This Day in June from the Hood County Library because they “indoctrinate children to the LGBT lifestyle” and “promote perversion.” Hood County Library Director Courtney Kincaid decided to keep the books on the shelves, but next week the commissioners’ court will meet to discuss whether or not to reverse her decision.

Book banning is one of the worst crimes one can commit against the human intellect, and undermines the free exchange of ideas that is one of the pillars of our democracy. We’ll be keeping a close eye on the commissioners’ court’s deliberations, but in the meantime, we thought we’d take a quick look at other books that have been either banned or challenged in Texas.

Farenheit 451
Ray Bradbury

Farenheit451TNWhile banning a book about book burning tests the limits of irony, in 2006 Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel was challenged in Texas and banned elsewhere throughout the country. In Conroe, the book was challenged due to its use of profanity, with one parent saying, “it shouldn’t be in there because it’s offending people…If they can’t find a book that uses clean words, they shouldn’t have a book at all.” The possibility that banning the book might be more offensive than the language it contained does not appear to have been a consideration.

The Working Poor: Invisible in America
David Shipler

The Working PoorTNTerrified of the risk of teaching high school children about the lives of Americans living in poverty, this non-fiction work by a Pulitzer Prize winner was challenged due to an anecdote of one woman’s experience with sexual abuse as a child and abortion during high school. The Working Poor was one of several books suspended last September in Highland Park High School during National Banned Books Week.

Esperanza Rising
Pam Muñoz Ryan

Esperanza RisingTNThe award-winning novel set in post-Revolutionary Mexico and Great Depression Era Southern California about 12-year old Esperanza Ortega has recently been challenged in Texas and North Carolina. One parent felt the novel “promoted illegal immigration” and was not age appropriate, while other parents were upset that the book addressed issues like racism, immigration, and “ethnic class struggles,” as though this were not, you know, what literature is for.

And Tango Makes Three
Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell

And Tango Make ThreeTNTwo very real male chinstrap penguins named Roy and Silo raised a chick named Tango together, and the authors turned it into this charming children’s story. And Tango Makes Three topped the lists of banned books in the United States and in Texas over the last few years. Reasons cited were that this book has anti-family values and “promotes the homosexual agenda.”

Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?
Bill Martin Jr.

Brown BearTNIn what is perhaps the most bizarre entry on this list, in 2010 the State Board of Education removed Bill Martin Jr.’s Brown Bear picture book series from the third grade curriculum, because someone else named Bill Martin happened to write a book entitled Ethical Marxism: The Categorical Imperative of Liberation. This in spite of the fact that Bill Martin Jr. died four years before Bill Martin’s book was even published.

Santa Claus Around the World
Lisl WeilSanta ClausTN

This non-fiction children’s picture book teaches children how Christmas is celebrated in other parts of the world. But because it included Krampus, a horned and beastly figure from a centuries-old German Christmas tradition, some parents tried to put it on the chopping block.

The Adventures of Captain Underpants
Dav Pilkey

Captain UnderpantsTNWhile most grade school boys embrace gross and irreverent stuff, this 11-part series was the most challenged of all books in 2012, for its offensive language, unsuitability for its age group, and violence. The series includes references to undergarments, toilets, bodily excrement, and mischievous rebellion against authority, and naturally it is beloved by its target audience of elementary school-aged boys.

Leprechauns Don’t Play Basketball
Marcia Thornton JonesLeprechaunsTN

Like the Harry Potter series, the references to magic and wizardry in Leprechauns Don’t Play Basketball resulted in the book being challenged in Nederland ISD.

Katy Perry
Sarah TieckKaty PerryTN

The biography of pop star Katy Perry was challenged for being offensive to religious sensitivities in Eagle Mountain Saginaw ISD during the 2011-2012 school year. Over what we will assume were the vigorous objections of the student body, the book was ultimately retained.