What Should I Do about Students Upset By a Condom Ad in a Magazine?

Q: I am a librarian in a small, rural school district in a conservative community. We have two school libraries: one is K-5 and the other is 6-12. In the high school library some eighth grade students were looking at a magazine and found a condom advertisement. They were very upset and asked that the ad be removed from the magazine. At this time I have simply taken the magazine off the shelf. But I am not sure that is the right thing to do.

Your instincts are serving you so well in this situation. You are uncomfortable removing the ad, and you know it’s wrong to remove the issue without due process. Altering or defacing the content of library materials is always unacceptable. Likewise, making some library materials inaccessible without a fair assessment process is also unacceptable.

So what can you do? First, as always, it is essential to regard the students’ concerns seriously, just as you would the concerns of any adult who was upset about something in the library. Follow the same procedures that you would for any adult with a concern.

If possible, make an appointment to talk with them. If possible, have another staff person attend this meeting with you. Begin by talking with the students about their objection to this particular ad in a specific magazine, to which we assume the school library has a subscription (since you haven’t indicated it was a gift). Thank them for speaking up. Say that you regret that the ad upset them. Explain that a school library always seeks to make a wide variety of materials, including magazines, available to students and staff. As a result, not everything in any school library will be suitable or appealing for every single student. Show them other magazines or materials that they might be more apt to find useful or enjoy.

If the students persist with their request that you remove the ad, explain that it is not acceptable for you or anyone else to deface any library materials —and that includes cutting advertising from a magazine. Explain the additional steps the district policy outlines when someone wants to formally file a complaint for reconsideration of library materials. (We are assuming that your district does have a board-approved policy, and unless the policy specifically exempts students—and we hope it doesn’t—the same procedure will be followed as a result of a complaint by a student as the district would follow in response to a complaint by a teacher, parent, or other community member.)

If you haven’t already done so, you must alert your administrator to the possibility of a complaint. Have a copy of the district’s policy in hand. Offer to sit down with the administrator and review the steps the policy outlines regarding complaints about library materials. Assuming the policy is board-approved, you can start by saying, “I know we want to make sure we are following the board-approved policy, so I thought we might want to review it.” This is a way to remind the administrator—if there is any question—that you are doing your job by following the policy. (The school district probably already has a separate list of regulations regarding defacing of school property that you might want to refer to as well.)

We aren’t ignoring your concerns about the fact that you are in a small community with conservative values. But it’s so important to remember—as scary as the possibility of a complaint might be—that following the district policy is not only your job, but it’s the most democratic and fair protection you and everyone else—including students—have. If you simply remove the issue from the library, or deface the magazine yourself by cutting out the ad offensive to the students, what will you do the next time there is a complaint, and the next? You will have sent the message that if someone is upset by something in the library, they just need to ask to have it removed, and it almost immediately will be either cut out of the print material or “disappear.”

Remember that a district policy exists to protect the rights of everyone when there is a concern about materials. By following it, you are respecting the rights of everyone in the school district and community, just as you are respecting the students who are upset by the ad to when you treat their concern with the same level of professionalism as you would the concern of anyone else in the community or school.

October, 2006