Only days after telling media he would review 54 books for obscenity, Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor said Thursday he is not investigating public-school library books.
O’Connor said he received complaints from parents who claimed to find obscene content in books from their children’s school libraries.
“I recommended that they present their objections to the school boards,” O’Connor said of complaining parents. “I also recommended that they talk with the legislature regarding how Oklahoma law defines ‘obscenity.’ Our office is not conducting an investigation in this matter at this time.”
On Tuesday, the attorney general’s office released a list of 54 books it would evaluate to determine whether they violated the state’s obscenity law.
O’Connor’s comment Thursday appeared to walk back the promise of an investigation, but a spokeswoman said the attorney general’s office will continue to “evaluate and monitor the situation.”
“Today’s comment was simply to state that the legislature and local school boards also have an important and appropriate role to play in addressing parents’ concerns,” said Rachel Roberts, communications director for the attorney general.
The list of books under review included classic novels, such as Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” and John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.” It also featured several books centered on LGBTQ+ themes.
Nicole McAfee, executive director of Freedom Oklahoma, said it was “disappointing but not surprising” to see potential criminalization and censorship of books focused on LGBTQ+ experiences.
Freedom Oklahoma advocates for LGBTQ+ equality.
For queer and non-gender-conforming people, books are a source of refuge, especially when they don’t see their identities represented in the communities where they live, said McAfee, who is non-binary and uses they/them pronouns.
McAfee said one of the books on the attorney general’s list, the New York Times bestseller “Red, White & Royal Blue,” inspired that same feeling.
“For me ‘Red, White & Royal Blue’ was a recent read because of its’ popularity,” McAfee said. “I very much enjoyed it but also felt myself touched in several pieces of it because I saw representation of parts of myself and my identity that I hadn’t ever read in fiction before.”
O’Connor’s list included numerous books that, like “Red, White & Royal Blue,” contain coarse language and sexual content.
Reclaim Oklahoma Parent Empowerment, a group seeking to amplify the role of parents in their children’s schooling, was among the entities that complained to O’Connor about the content of school library books.
The group’s education director, Jenni White, confirmed ROPE objected to “Gender Queer: A Memoir” by Maia Kobabe and “Forever” by Judy Blume, two books the attorney general earlier said he would have reviewed.
“I am forced to pay taxes into the pot that sustains public schools and — as a taxpayer — I do not want schools providing students with materials that break the law,” White wrote in an email to The Oklahoman. “If parents want to expose their children to this kind of reading material they may do by buying it for them at any community or online book store.”
Works deemed legally obscene lose their First Amendment protections and could prompt criminal penalties for those who distribute them.
Oklahoma hasn’t seen an obscenity case prosecuted in decades, said Joey Senat, an open government and media law expert at Oklahoma State University.
State law has a much higher bar for defining obscene material than what it might take to ban a book from a school district or a library, he said.
Oklahoma’s definition of obscene material, which mirrors a 1973 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, dictates that a reasonable person would have to find a book on the whole shows a degrading or excessive interest in sexual matters.
It would have to describe sexual conduct in a patently offensive way, and the book, taken as a whole, must lack serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.
The phrase “taken as a whole” is crucial, Senat said.
“You can’t pull out one paragraph and deem the entire work obscene,” he said. “The work taken as a whole has to lack serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value. That’s why I say a few four-letter words or even a picture does not automatically make something obscene.”
Public school districts are required to adopt a written policy governing library collections and reconsideration of school library materials.
O’Connor encouraged parents to present their complaints to school boards and contact lawmakers about how Oklahoma defines obscene material.
State legislators have filed multiple bills that would limit school books and empower parents to challenge library content.
Rep. Sherrie Conley, R-Newcastle, introduced a bill to update the state’s definition of obscene material to include printed or digital content that would be “harmful to minors,” despite Oklahoma’s obscenity statute already including books and written works.
Libraries are meant to have a broad selection of titles, including some that certain parents might not like, said Tim Miller, president-elect of the Oklahoma Library Association and executive director of the Clinton-based Western Plains Library System.
Miller said it was “baffling” to see the attorney general wade into a decision typically left up to the individual family.
“I don’t have a right to choose what information you wish to consume, nor do you have a right, in my opinion, to choose what information I want to consume,” Miller said. “That’s sort of the essence of what a library is. We’re going to provide free and open access to information and then leave it to parents to decide what their children read.”
Reporter Nuria Martinez-Keel covers K-12 and higher education throughout the state of Oklahoma. Have a story idea for Nuria? She can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @NuriaMKeel. Support Nuria’s work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today at subscribe.oklahoman.com.