Harry Potter and the Censors' Menace

Free Expression Groups Support Arkansas Parents Challenging Banishment of Harry Potter Books from School Library Shelves

People For the American Way Foundation joined today with the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression and other groups to file a brief in federal court in support of parents challenging a school board’s decision to remove all Harry Potter books from the school library shelves. The decision by the Cedarville, Arkansas, school board, which requires written parental permission before students can check out the books, disregarded a 15-0 decision by the board’s Library Committee. The episode was triggered by a parent’s complaint that the books promote witchcraft and sorcery as well as the ideas that “magic will solve your problems” and that “parents/teachers/rules are stupid or something to be ignored.”

“There are a lot of things in this world that are dangerous for children, but reading good books isn’t one of them,” said People For the American Way Foundation President Ralph G. Neas. “Libraries are meant to be places where children can feed their imaginations and learn new ideas. It is a bad idea for school boards to become censorship boards. It is both unwise and unconstitutional to allow the religious or philosophical views of one parent to dictate the reading choices of all the children in the school.”

The lawsuit was filed by Billy Ray Counts and Mary Nell Counts, whose child Dakota Counts attends school in Cedarville. The three board members who voted to remove the books from library shelves all stated that they did so because they wanted to restrict access to ideas they disliked, claiming that the books taught students about witchcraft or the occult.

“Harry Potter must be getting tired of this,” said Neas, noting that the Potter series of books by J.K. Rowling has been at the top of the American Library Association’s list of most frequently banned books for four years in a row. “A public school library should not be a chamber of secrets guarded by a three-headed dog.”

Neas said the language used to challenge the Rowling books in this case is similar to language used by Religious Right leaders and organizations who have denounced the books as threats to children. For example, three months after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson cited “teaching witchcraft in the schools” – referring to Harry Potter books – among a list of reasons that America was “asking for the wrath of God to come on this country.” Neas said there is a robust debate in evangelical Christian circles about whether or not reading Harry Potter books is dangerous for children, with some arguing that the books can be useful for teaching children virtues like friendship and loyalty.

The amicus curiae brief by PFAWF and others argues that the Cedarville school board’s removal of Harry Potter books violated its own procedures as well as the U.S. Constitution and urges the court to enjoin the school board’s decision.

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