Commentary

Believing professionals doing professional things

February 12, 2024 3:00 am

A wave of book bans have hit school libraries in the last few years. (Getty Images)

Now that the Super Bowl is over and we’ve survived Taylor Swift’s attempt to undo the Republic, perhaps we should consider more mundane endeavors.

Writing good public policy, drafting effective legislation, making progress … that sort of thing.

To wit: Gov. Jim Pillen accomplished none of the above on his latest trip to the Texas/Mexico border with Nebraska’s checkbook in tow. He and a passel of governors are laboring under the mistaken theory that they can bypass the Constitution’s supremacy clause. If you’re catching a whiff of 1957 Little Rock Central High School and the segregationists who wanted to keep it white, you’re not alone. 

Speaking of public policy, back in Nebraska, the book banners are at it again.

Some on the Nebraska State Board of Education may be joining the ranks of those expending more energy banning books than finding ways to get students to read them. The board will be voting on a proposal next month that would ban “pornographic materials or sexually explicit content” from public school libraries and classrooms. 

Fair enough. Nobody wants third graders cracking open “Fifty Shades of Gray” or middle schoolers burdened with “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.” Consequences in the proposal include libraries losing accreditation and teachers losing credentials.

That said, questions persist.

First, as the state’s top librarian testified at the state board meeting earlier this month, school libraries do not stock pornographic materials. In an interview with the Lincoln Journal Star, Chris Haeffner, president of the Nebraska Library Association, said “No, we do not have pornography in our school libraries. Students do not come to their school libraries to find pornography. They do not use school databases to access pornography. The materials that are in our books are carefully selected by school librarians.”

So there’s that. We also have a history of pornography being ill-defined … from U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously saying, “I know it when I see it” when trying to define “hard-core pornography” to the high court as a whole fussing over defining the most prurient material among us with a number of tests for obscenity applied throughout the years. 

Nebraska has its own legal definition when it comes to pornography and children. Language in Nebraska’s Child Pornography Prevention Act reads like a below-average piece of erotica and covers enough bases to make most of us blush. Perhaps we should ban children from reading the statute’s index. It’s 28-1463.02 if you’re keeping score at home.

Nevertheless, the state board proposal, offered by board member Kirk Penner, underscores a basic problem we see in the culture wars, especially in education. 

With safeguards and policies in place in almost all local school districts and the expertise, experience and stewardship of media specialists and librarians, further intervention would be unwarranted.

Nevertheless, according to state board member Sherry Jones, some trust neither the competence nor the capacity of the professionals whose job it is to make these decisions and the processes by which they reach them. “I appreciate the work of media specialists and their knowledge. But I don’t think they can be the only safeguard to ensure that sexually explicit materials are not accessible to our students,” Jones said. 

And thereby hangs a tale. Much of the modern meshugaas in public policy fights is whether boards or legislatures or Congresses are willing to let data and evidence and experience from professionals whose role is to provide data, evidence and experience do just that … and trust the results. Narrowing that scope for political reasons redefines the role of those who write policy and those who execute it. A confusion of the two rarely goes unpunished, from micromanagement to misplaced effort or any combination thereof.

None of which means this debate is going away. Book banning and revisionist American history remain popular battlefronts in the culture wars. Still, the recent track record shows Americans less willing to dump a title to fit some political end. A Plattsmouth school board member was recently recalled after she attempted to ban a series of books from the school’s library. Candidates endorsed by de facto book banning icons, Moms For Liberty, did poorly in midterm elections. With his campaign for president buoyed in part by his state being a leader in removing books from school libraries and classrooms, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ candidacy proved lackluster at best.

Electing leaders requires a range of decisions, not the least of which should be their ability to do the job. We should add to that letting others do theirs, too.

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George Ayoub
George Ayoub

George Ayoub filed nearly 5,000 columns, editorials and features in 21 years as a journalist for the Grand Island Independent. His columns also appeared in the Omaha World-Herald and Kearney Hub. His work has been recognized by the Nebraska Press Association and the Associated Press. He was awarded a national prize by Gatehouse Media for a 34-part series focusing on the impact of cancer on families of victims and survivors. He is a member of the adjunct faculty and Academic Support Staff at Hastings College. Ayoub has published two short novels, “Warm, for Christmas” and “Dust in Grissom.” In 2019 he published “Confluence,” the biography of former Omaha World-Herald publisher and CEO John Gottschalk.

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