Accusations of Providing Pornography

Q: Someone recently accused the library where I work of providing pornography to youth. While I don’t believe that’s what the books they’re saying this about are, I’m wondering if you can address the difference between pornography and informational books in which sex /sex education is the topic, or fictional books in which sex in some aspect is is a component of the story?

We need to begin our response by saying we aren’t legal experts. We’re making this clear because the definition of both obscenity and pornography are legal ones, and we aren’t qualified to talk specifically about what pornography and obscenity are in legal terms.

The article “Do Minors Have First Amendment Rights?,” published in 2015 in Knowledge Quest (a journal of the American Association of School Libraries, a division of the American Library Association) and the publication “Terms and Definitions Related to Intellectual Freedom and Censorship,” created by United for Libraries, offer several key points:

  • Materials with sexual content are not pornographic or obscene or “harmful to minors” simply because they have sexual content
  • Whether material is “obscene” or “harmful to minors” is determined by the courts, not by individuals
  • Legally, the determination of whether material is “harmful to minors” must consider the entire age range of minors (through 17),  not just children at a specific age (e.g., 3, or 6, or 10, or 13…)

Based on all of this, we are confident in saying that an individual or group calling something pornography, or believing something is pornography because it offends them personally, doesn’t mean it’s pornography, or obscene, or “harmful.”  This is the case no matter how uncomfortable those individuals or the members of a group may be with the book(s), or how strongly they feel children or teens shouldn’t have access to specific materials. (It’s important to state that parents and guardians certainly have the right to decide what they want their own children reading, and the responsibility to talk with their kids about those limits and expectations. Libraries and school districts need to take concerns seriously by following their board-approved process for responding to them.)

While the determination of whether something is obscene, or pornographic, or “harmful to minors” can only be made by the courts, we want to add that we absolutely agree with you: Broadly speaking, there is a significant difference between books for children or teens that discuss human growth and development and sex, or that feature fictional characters thinking about, talking about, or engaging in sexual behavior, and pornography. As the  United for Libraries Terms and Definitions Related to Intellectual Freedom and Censorship notes in its discussion of the Supreme Court “Miller Test” for determining if an item meets the definition of “obscenity”: “Generally, if an item is available for purchase in the general marketplace, it is unlikely to meet the criteria of the Miller Test.”

Unfortunately, none of this line of logic prevents someone from making such an accusation about library materials. And whether those who do so are using the word “pornography” as a weapon intended to frighten and have a chilling effect on what libraries make available (especially given the fact that many books recently being called out as “pornography” are books with LGBTQ content, as seen here and here) or they genuinely believe what they are saying, it’s stressful for you, administrators, and board members. 

Here are a few things you can do before and/or during this kind of stressful situation:

  • Help administrators, board members and others broadly understand what pornography isn’t  in terms of the library (i.e., Pornography isn’t any material that someone finds offensive or inappropriate based on sexual information or content that they don’t approve of. Whether or not something is obscene or pornographic can only be determined by the courts.) This is critical knowledge for anyone being accused of providing it or involved in making a decision about a formal challenge or request for reconsideration. We encourage administrators and boards not to hesitate to consult with their institution’s legal counsel to further clarify this distinction, if needed.
  • Make sure administrators and board members are familiar with the process for responding to concerns, which should be detailed in board-approved policies and related procedures.  (Read more about the importance of following board-approved policies and procedures, which makes sure the rights, needs and interests of everyone in the community the library serves are valued and respected.) 
  •  Share ALA’s Working with the Media with administrators, which provides guidance on  when and how to publicly respond to concerns, complaints and challenges
  • Keep the children, teens, and families impacted by such accusations at the forefront of your thinking and conversations with administrators and others, knowing that it is material with LGBTQ content often being singled out. Not only is it expected that a library or school will include LGBTQ materials, but LGBTQ children and teens should know their libraries and schools support them. 
  • Think about where you can get confidential support, personally and professionally.  This might include a colleague within your library or school, or someone you know through a professional connection or network, and one or more people you trust in your personal life. In other words, even as you try to assure the rights and needs of all the children, teens and families you serve are respected, don’t lose sight of the importance of taking care of yourself, whatever that means for you, at work and at home. 

December 2021

Thank you to Monica Treptow, Caitlin Tobin and Merri Lindgren for contributing to this response.