“Free Speech” is a monthly column by Chris Finan, director of the American Booksellers for Free Expression (ABFE), that shares his personal thoughts and opinions on a broad range of free expression issues; the views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the American Booksellers Association. Finan welcomes comments and suggestions at email@example.com.
A plan to read a children’s book about a transgender girl to an elementary school class was cancelled in late November in Mount Horeb, Wisconsin, when school officials were threatened with legal action if they permitted the reading.
As happens so often, however, the attempted censorship appears to have backfired.
The controversy began when teachers at Mount Horeb Primary Center, a public elementary school, decided to read I Am Jazz (Dial Books) to the classmates of a six-year-old transgender girl in an effort help them understand what was happening to the girl and to make her feel safe and accepted. The book is co-authored by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings, a 12-year-old transgender girl who stars in a reality TV show.
When a note about the reading was sent to parents of the students in the class, some parents objected. The Liberty Counsel, a conservative legal advocacy group based in Florida, sent the Mount Horeb School Board a letter that claimed the reading, which it described as “a propaganda session,” would violate the U.S. Constitution because it would deny parents the right to raise their children as they wished and violate their First Amendment right to describe a transgender person according to his or her biological gender. It concluded with a threat to file a lawsuit if children were “harmed” by the reading.
School officials decided to delay the reading to give the school board an opportunity to review the situation and develop a policy on transgender students.
Many of the residents of Mount Horeb, a town of 7,000 that is 25 miles south of Madison, expressed their support for the transgender student. Approximately 200 people gathered early one morning outside the Mount Horeb High School to hear a reading of I Am Jazz organized by members of the high school’s Sexuality and Gender Alliance.
The Mount Horeb Public Library held another reading the same night, and this time the book was read by co-author Jessica Herthel. The 80 chairs that were set up for the event were quickly filled, and the audience swelled to more than 600. One woman told a reporter that she was there to support the transgender child at the center of the dispute. “That could be any one of our kids,” said the woman, who was accompanied by her daughters, ages four and 10.
Outside groups also joined the debate. The Human Rights Campaign (HRC), a national advocacy group on gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender issues, paid Herthel’s travel expenses. A HRC staff member spoke at the library and distributed 40 copies of I Am Jazz to young people at the event.
The Kids’ Right to Read Project, which is co-sponsored by the American Booksellers for Free Expression and the National Coalition Against Censorship, wrote to the school board, rebutting the Liberty Council’s legal claims.
When the school board met on December 7, it expressed strong support for the rights of transgender students, granting them access to restrooms, locker rooms, physical education classes, and intramural sports “in a manner consistent” with their new gender identities. It also added “transgender status” to the district’s non-discrimination policy.
A final decision is pending on whether I Am Jazz will be read during class. The school board has left the decision to the principal of the elementary school.
But the Liberty Counsel must be having second thoughts about its effort to awaken Mount Horeb to the “danger” posed by a transgender student.
Peter Strube, a school board member, sent a message prior to the vote on the policy for accommodating transgender students. “Let the word go forth here and now that this board will stand united and we will not be intimidated, and we will teach tolerance and will be accepting to everyone,” he said.
The board then approved the policy by a vote of 7–0.