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Supreme Court Rejects Education Department’s Attempt to Ban Books

Ryan Walters at a Board of Education meeting on Jan. 26, 2023.
Whitney Bryen
/
Oklahoma Watch
Ryan Walters at a Board of Education meeting on Jan. 26, 2023.

The Oklahoma Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled in favor of Edmond Public Schools in a battle over books in its school libraries.

The state’s high court in a unanimous decision said Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters and the state Department of Education overstepped their authority in trying to force Edmond schools to ban two novels.

Local school boards retain the discretion to decide which books are in a school’s library based on their community’s standards, the justices wrote.

Jeff Bardach, a spokesman for Edmond Public Schools, said the district’s staff is grateful for the decision, which “protects our locally elected school board’s role in creating policies that determine how library materials are selected and reviewed.”

The two targeted books are The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini and The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, both award-winning novels. The Kite Runner, a story about a boy in war-torn Afghanistan, has been challenged for scenes including rape and child sexual abuse. The Glass Castle, a memoir about poverty, contains profanity and depictions of alcoholism and sexuality. Edmond said the books are only available to high school students.

In January, the department notified Edmond schools its Library Media Advisory Committee determined the books violated administrative rules banning pornographic or sexualized content from school libraries.

Pornography is generally defined as materials intended to cause sexual excitement. But Walters, and his agency, has applied the term much more broadly to include books that contain mentions of sex or LGBTQ issues.

The only publicly known member of the Library Media Advisory Committee is Chaya Raichik, a media influencer and creator of Libs of Tik Tok who grew up in New York and lives in Los Angeles. The agency has yet to provide materials relating to Oklahoma Watch’s request, submitted in February, for information about the committee’s other members and its meetings.

The department ordered the district to remove the books from its libraries, and threatened to downgrade its accreditation status if it didn’t comply. On Feb. 20, the district asked the state Supreme Court to intervene.

The Board of Education established the new rulesin 2023. Despite an attorney general’s opinion dated April 4, 2023, that said the board lacked legislative authority to create the rules, Gov. Kevin Stitt approved them in June.

Tuesday’s decision did not address several other issues raised by Edmond Public Schools, including whether the attorney general was correct or whether the Board of Education was authorized to create the rules.

Walters, in a written statement, called on the Legislature to address the issue.

“Although we are disappointed the Court issued this decision, it was made on very narrow grounds,” Walters said in the statement. “The Court 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.”

Oklahoma Watch, at oklahomawatch.org, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that covers public-policy issues facing the state.
Oklahoma Watch
Oklahoma Watch, at oklahomawatch.org, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that covers public-policy issues facing the state.