Oklahoma Superintendent Can’t Remove Sexualized Books From School Libraries: State Supreme Court

State officials tried forcing a school district to remove The Kite Runner and The Glass Castle.
Oklahoma Superintendent Can’t Remove Sexualized Books From School Libraries: State Supreme Court
Ryan Walters, Oklahoma state superintendent of public instruction, in Washington on Aug. 29, 2023. (Alejandro Heredia/The Epoch Times)
Zachary Stieber

School districts have the power to decide which books shall be placed in school libraries, and state officials cannot order any of the books removed, according to a June 11 ruling from the Oklahoma Supreme Court.

The ruling was issued after the Oklahoma State Board of Education directed Edmond Public Schools to remove two books from its library because the board’s advisory committee found they contained pornographic or sexualized content.

The board acted under new rules that Gov. Kevin Stitt, a Republican, approved in 2023. The rules state in part that the board “recognizes its duty and responsibility to protect minor students from accessing pornographic materials and sexualized content and will implement this duty by exercising the State Board of Education’s authority to adopt policies and make rules for public schools.”

Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond, another Republican, said that the board was not able to impose the rules.

Edmond Public Schools took the matter to the Oklahoma Supreme Court, arguing that the board made the rules without proper authority and, absent a ruling, the district would be forced to remove the books, “inviting another lawsuit on First Amendment grounds.”

Lawyers for the board said state law and Oklahoma’s Constitution confer authority for the rules, including a law that says the Board of Education shall “make rules for the operation of the public school system” and has the authority to “perform all duties necessary to the administration of the public school system as specified in the Oklahoma school code.” The code mentions school libraries and states they need to contain “an age-appropriate collection” of materials.

All nine justices on the state’s top court sided with the school district.

The code that states materials in libraries “shall be reflective of the community standards for the population the library media center serves when acquiring an age-appropriate collection of print materials, nonprint materials, multimedia resources, equipment, and supplies adequate in quality and quantity to meet the needs of students in all areas of the school library media program” refers to local school boards, not state officials, according to the court.

“We conclude a local school board possesses statutory authority to maintain and control its local school library, and one aspect of this control includes discretionary selection for providing supplemental educational books and instructional material deemed appropriate by the local school board in compliance with state statutes,” Justice James Edmondson wrote in the ruling. “No statute gives the state Board of Education, state Department of Education, and superintendent of public instruction the authority to overrule a local school board’s exercise of discretion in applying its local community standards for books in a local school library.”
The state Board of Education does have the authority to oversee schools but the state legislature has not expressly conferred authority to oversee school libraries, Justice Edmondson said. 

Justices told state officials to suspend their efforts to force Edmonds officials to remove the two books, The Kite Runner and The Glass Castle.

“We appreciate their willingness to take the case and their decision today,” Edmond Public Schools said in a statement to news outlets. “Today’s decision protects our locally elected school board’s role in creating policies that determine how library materials are selected and reviewed.”

The court declined to analyze some of the claims brought by the school district, including a claim that the rules were unconstitutional.

State Superintendent Ryan Walters, who heads the Oklahoma Board of Education, said that “although we are disappointed the court issued this decision, it was made on very narrow grounds.”

“The court,” he added, “did not sign on to any of the claims made by the districts that would have affected the State Board of Education’s broad authority over school districts or the governor’s ability to approve our administrative rules.”