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ACLU says proposed Ludlow school library policy is vague, form of censorship

Members of the school committee in Ludlow, Massachusetts, meeting May 9, 2023.
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Ludlow Community Television
Members of the school committee in Ludlow, Massachusetts, meeting May 9, 2023.

The ACLU of Massachusetts is urging school committee members in Ludlow to reject a proposal that would change how library materials are selected, and who does the selecting.

Elements of the proposed policy raise "numerous legal issues, including free expression, vagueness and discrimination," the group's attorneys said in a letter to the district.

The proposal, first introduced at the school committee meeting on May 9, seeks to weed out "inappropriate materials" from the district's libraries.

"Sexualized content is generally inappropriate and/or unnecessary for minors in school," the proposal says. "However, a school need not show that sexualized content is obscene to show that it is not appropriate or educationally suitable for minor students. Parents/guardians have a wide range of options outside of the District's library system to introduce their child to sexual content they deem age-appropriate for their child."

The proposal, submitted on May 9 by school committee member Jaoa Dias, defines terms including sexual acts, implied sexual acts, intimate parts and implied nudity.

It also gives the school committee decision making powers when acquiring new print and digital materials for the district's libraries.

The ACLU said in its letter to the school committee that the policy, if passed, "would set extremely vague, overbroad and repressive standards for what materials can and cannot be in school libraries, with a particular obsession with any depiction or description of various body parts."

The organization also criticized how the policy would allow for termination of a district employee who fails to follow the policy.

"A kicker in the proposed policy is that apparently people can lose their jobs," the letter said, "not only for not complying with these vague and overbroad terms, they can lose their jobs for not 'prioritiz[ing] the selection of materials which do not contain other sexualized content, even though permitted, such as visual depictions of nude body parts.'"

"How in the world does someone figure out whether or not or the extent to which 'covered male genitals in a discernibly turgid state' are or are not encompassed by the ban on 'nude intimate parts?'" the ACLU wrote, quoting the proposal.

The letter included images of male baseball players and ballet dancers, as an example of what could be considered against the policy.

If passed, it could also restrict access to many young adult novels as well as images of religious art.

Ludlow Public Schools already has policies in place that allow parents to challenge materials placed in the district's libraries, and an email system that allows parents to block their children from taking out materials they don't approve.

In the last few years, several Ludlow parents have pushed back on titles in the school library related to puberty. And in 2022, two sets of parents sued the Ludlow School Committee and several school administrators over the district’s alleged failure to disclose to parents information about their children’s gender identities.

Dias — the school committee member advancing the library proposal — appeared to weigh in on the lawsuit last year on Facebook: "Hopefully they named the teacher, administrators, former superintendent and school committee members individually as well. Groomers all!"

Asked over email about this opinion, Dias had no immediate comment.

To the ACLU, the proposed library policy is connected to LGBTQ rights, said Ruth Bourquin, the organization's senior and managing attorney.

"It seems [the policy] may be a not very well-veiled attempt to find a way to suppress literature about LGBTQ experiences and coming of age experiences," Bourquin said. "This policy, we think, is clearly unlawful [and] it's wildly overbroad."

The language of the proposal is almost a verbatim copy of something proposed in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, Bourquin said. She said the district is "renowned for anti-LGBTQ+ bias" and is facing litigation by the ACLU.

Dias declined to discuss the proposal at the May 9 meeting. He also declined comment this week.

"I will be happy to discuss the policy after [next week's] meeting," Dias said in an email.

School committee members will vote on the policy June 6, said Ronald Saloio, another member of the Ludlow School Committee.

"Per school committee policy, the first meeting, the new policy is proposed with no discussion," Saloio said in an email.

Next week, at a meeting on May 23, "the policy will be read and discussed," Saloio said. "[T]here might be changes suggested to the proposed policy at this time."

Jill Kaufman has been a reporter and host at NEPM since 2005. Before that she spent 10 years at WBUR in Boston, producing "The Connection" with Christopher Lydon and on "Morning Edition" reporting and hosting. She's also hosted NHPR's daily talk show "The Exhange" and was an editor at PRX's "The World."