In late October, the Gilbert Arizona Public School’s governing board voted to have two pages from a widely used honors biology textbook removed on the grounds that its discussion of contraception and common birth control methods violated Arizona law.
The state law being cited is 15-115: Preference for childbirth and adoption; allowable presentation. Signed by Governor Jan Brewer two years ago, the law enumerates the ways that schools should teach and emphasize childbirth and adoption options over abortion and pregnancy prevention. As the law states:
In view of the state’s strong interest in promoting childbirth and adoption over elective abortion, no school district or charter school in this state may allow any presentation during instructional time or furnish any materials to pupils as part of any instruction that does not give preference, encouragement and support to childbirth and adoption as preferred options to elective abortion.
Since early January, members of the Gilbert school board and Superintendent Christina Kishimoto began receiving comments from groups, such as the Alliance Defending Freedom, regarding the biology textbook, Campbell Biology: Concepts and Connections 7th Edition. Their concern was that the book’s subsection “27.8 Contraception can prevent unwanted pregnancy” was in direct violation of Arizona law due to its presentation of information discussing abortion and pregnancy prevention “while making absolutely no mention whatsoever of childbirth or adoption, much less giving preference to childbirth and adoptions.” In light of this “violation,” the board was encouraged to have the pages removed from the book or the books outright removed from classrooms.
In September, the Arizona Board of Education themselves reviewed the book and issued a statement which determined that it did not violate law — the subsection was a presentation of factual information and in no way an endorsement for any one particular life choice over another. However, according to the Board of Education, the ultimate decision regarding the interpretation of the law and its relation to the material was up to the local school board. In a convening of members in October, they voted 3-2 that the textbook was in violation of the law and began the process of redacting the pages from the textbook.
In light of the board’s decision, what started as a conversation about legal interpretation has now become one of censorship and the explicit regulation of the information. As New York Times writer Rick Rojas writes, “[C]ensoring the book amounts to a violation of students’ First Amendment rights — and may violate copyright law as well.”
For Gilbert board member and concerned parent, Julie Smith, though, “It comes down to, it’s the law, and we need to be in compliance with the law… If people don’t like the law, they need to take it up with their state legislator. I don’t write the law. It’s my job to uphold it.”
The issue in this case is that the decision that was made was based on an interpretation of a law that comes to the table somewhat biased and confusing in its own wording, “In view of the state’s strong interest in promoting childbirth and adoption over elective abortion.” Alessandra Soler, executive director of the A.C.L.U. of Arizona, states that this was an “extreme interpretation, an incorrect interpretation [that] sends the wrong message. More information is always going to be better.”
School curricula and book assignments are ongoing — in increasingly — targets of censors. Just recently, CBLDF joined a coalition defending a health curriculum that’s under attack in Delaware because the curriculum doesn’t support the narrow religious beliefs of a handful of people in the community, one of whom is on the school board. And CBLDF has been very busy helping defend summer reading lists and school reading assignments around the country.
At what point should personal beliefs (political, religious, or moral) impact the education that students receive — an education that will ultimately impact the personal decisions that they make in the future as functioning adults in society? On First Amendment grounds, it’s never appropriate to let a single or small number of people determine what is appropriate for all students. In this case, a handful of individuals who likely have little to no training in legal interpretation made a decision based on a potentially flawed and poorly worded law.
In terms of education, the more information provided to young adults, especially in an honors classroom setting, the more informed and educated those young adults will be when it comes to interpreting and making decisions outside of the classroom. As we so often see in these types of cases, though, the call to censor or redact information as opposed to discussion is the first course of action. Unfortunately, this is an action that has greater implications that extend beyond the borders of Gilbert, Arizona, and has profound First Amendment implications.
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Contributing Editor Caitlin McCabe is an independent comics scholar who loves a good pre-code horror comic and the opportunity to spread her knowledge of the industry to those looking for a great story!