Banning books is hard. Well, no, that’s not entirely accurate. Banning books using the proper legal channels is hard. There is a pesky speed bump called the First Amendment of the Constitution. It always seems to hinder our country’s self-appointed moralists from achieving dominion over the masses.
So how does a hero prevent other people’s kids from accessing sinful library books? Let me tell you, it’s a drag. It involves formal book challenges, time, debate, deliberation, and a lot of reading.
But we live in Pennridge school district, home of the infamous “backroom board.” Who needs the due process, public scrutiny, and media attention that would accompany a traditional book banning campaign? Our school board, with a little help from their friends, found another way.
Only recently did the public discover who wrote Pennridge’s new library policy. It turns out it was Jeremy Samek and Randall Wenger. Samek and Wenger are registered lobbyists employed by the Independence Law Center (ILC). The ILC is the legal arm of the PA Family Council.
The PA Family Council is a Harrisburg-based advocacy firm that “promotes the sanctity of life, strong families, the institution of marriage and religious liberty.” Religious Liberty might sound great, until you understand how these folks interpret that principle.
The PA Family’s Religious Liberty portfolio includes several initiatives opposing legislation and court decisions that defend the rights of gay people. PA Family took stances against same-sex marriage, same-sex foster parenting, hate-crime laws, and the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” PA Family even dedicates an entire section of their website to a very specific topic: I kid you not, it is called the ‘Homosexuality Archives.’ Yikes.
Randall Wenger and Jeremy Samek act as counsel and spokespeople for the advancement of PA Family‘s mission. You can find them on YouTube hosting webinars with Doug Mastriano, being interviewed by religious talk shows, and speaking at pro-life rallies. Their agenda is not a big secret.
What was a secret is that they had been working behind closed doors with the Pennridge School Board in policy creation. Wenger and Samek’s involvement was never announced at any public meeting. No contract was ever adopted to accept their legal services. There was never a peep about where these new policies originated. As with many actions that the district takes, the public was kept in the dark.
But still, speculation and rumors began to percolate in the community. At the March 2023 school board meeting, a concerned parent asked board president, David Reiss, if the board had ever worked with the ILC. Reiss answered “no comment.”
The board couldn’t keep their relationship a secret forever. A local reporter picked up on the ILC’s scent. On April 13, 2023, Chris Ullery of the Courier Times published an explosive article exposing school districts in PA where the ILC had crept in and meddled in policy matters. The story included, no surprise, our very own Pennridge school district.
A cache of emails obtained through the Right-To-Know Law uncovered that previous board president, Joan Cullen, had been exchanging emails, and chatting, with the ILC. Samek sent revisions of Pennridge’s library policy directly to Cullen. Cullen, in-turn, brought that policy before committee and, eventually, it was adopted by the board.
Leading up to the policy’s adoption, there was a closed-door meeting between the board and the ILC. Below is a correspondence that I found of particular concern.
In the above email, Cullen invited Samek (and later, Wenger) into the board’s executive session where there was to be discussion of policy and the dispensing of legal advice. It was corroborated by a separate email that superintendent Bolton sent to the board, in which he scheduled the event.
Executive sessions are held in private and members of the public are not permitted to attend. Because of that fact, such meetings must only be held for very specific purposes. Third parties, especially outside lobbyists, are legally not allowed to attend.
My attorney, Joy Ramsingh, wrote a letter to Pennridge’s solicitor, Michael Miller, to raise concerns about this, and several other, Sunshine Act violations. Miller disagreed with our “premise.” To be clear, it was never our “premise,” we simply cited what was documented in email. Nonetheless, in fairness, here was his explanation:
“As an initial matter, we disagree with your premise that the Board met with the ILC ‘for the purpose of dispensing legal advice and to discuss policy matters.’ The ILC provided a brief, informational presentation to Board members during an informational session related to its views on the school policy. The District has no formal relationship with the ILC, and the District has not retained the ILC to ‘dispense’ or otherwise provide any formal legal advice. The presentation by ILC was nothing more than an informational session for the purpose of fact finding and educating the Board, which was a precursor to the Board’s executive session with the solicitor to discuss the legal guideposts with respect to school policy. No member of the ILC was present for any legal advice provided to the Board by the District’s sole legal advisor – the solicitor.”
I’ll admit, it’s a very crafty threading of the legal needle by Miller. No big deal, it was just an undisclosed “fact finding” meeting with the ILC attorneys. Rest-assured, Wenger and Samek did not provide any formal legal advice. Besides, as the solicitor states, he is the “sole legal advisor” to the district.
Fair point. You are the district’s sole legal advisor. Why weren’t you the attorney working with board leadership to draft these policies in the first place? Isn’t that your job? Why was policy creation outsourced to lobbyists that have zero fiduciary responsibility to our taxpayers?
There is a stark difference between the role of a solicitor and a political lobbyist. A solicitor is paid to serve in the legal best interest of the school district. Samek is paid by a religious advocacy firm to advance an agenda. He is not bound by the code of conduct that accompanies an attorney-client relationship.
Samek and Wenger are the last people that the board should be consulting for impartial legal guidance. It is clear that their meeting served as an unannounced lobbying session with a quorum of the board in attendance. This is not OK.
Still unclear about the ILC’s motivations in Pennridge? Both Wenger and Samek attended a Pennridge Area Republican Club’s special event as guest speakers. The topics included “keeping pornography out of the school library” and “keeping boys out of the girls bathroom.” You would never see a solicitor advocate for district policy in this way.
Speaking of advocacy, I’m sure you can guess who also drafted Pennridge’s Policy 321 (the “Advocacy” Policy). Yes, our favorite Harrisburg lobbyists. The updated Policy 321 added any expression of personal belief regarding “sexual orientation” to the list of off-limits topics for faculty. It also mandated the removal of all displays of outward support for LGBTQ students on school property (i.e. safe space stickers, etc). It sounds like an initiative that would fit snugly into PA Family’s “Homosexuality Archives.”
When Chris Ullery, of the Courier Times, asked Cullen about the lobbyists’ involvement, she minimized the relationship. Cullen wrote, “My own limited contact and any contact other board members had with the group in question were part of the normal process.”
Nothing about the relationship between the ILC and Pennridge seems “limited” or “normal.” I also found it bizarre that Cullen referred to PA Family as “stakeholders” in her statement. I don’t see why an entity like PA Family would ever be given that designation in a public school district.
In the weeks leading up to the adoption of PA Family’s revision of Policy 109, the censorship campaign had already begun. The annual display celebrating Banned Book Week at the Pennridge High School library was taken down by decree of district leadership. It was a 10+ year tradition and, just like that, it was canceled.
The message was effectively sent to the district librarians. Fall in line, the highly-politicized school board were the new gatekeepers of the books. It was an unfortunate foreshadowing of the year that was to follow.
At the September 2022 general meeting, Policy 321 and Policy 109 were adopted by the board. Neither policy was on the agenda for a final vote. The board bypassed best practices and skipped the entire second read process.
At the beginning of the meeting, school board director Ricki Chaikin asserted that there was a “smut and filth” problem in our district. She then introduced her board colleague, Jordan Blomgren. Blomgren bolstered Chaikin’s claims by reading an “excerpt” from a young adult novel in the high school library, Allegedly by Tiffany D Jackson.
Either Blomgren and Chaikin never read Allegedly before championing its removal or they intentionally mischaracterized its contents. The “excerpt” recited that night does not even exist in the book. That’s right, somebody had pieced together a hodgepodge of disparate phrases from multiple chapters of the novel and crafted a completely fabricated character dialog.
Blomgren recited this bogus “excerpt” as if it was a real piece of contiguous text. It made Allegedly sound relentlessly profane. In reality, it is not. It was a parlor trick that epitomized the Moms For Liberty playbook.
That night, board members continued to make outrageous claims that “pornographic” and “x-rated” materials were available in our school libraries, all while offering zero real evidence. Allegedly was the only book mentioned by name. Board director Megan Banis-Clemens said “it’s clear that certain individuals don’t know what age-appropriate means, and for that reason I agreed to be more specific in laying out what is appropriate and what is not appropriate. As a parent, the fact that these materials were in my kid’s library, and my kid could have signed them out, makes me livid.”
Before the final vote was taken, Blomgren made a statement of support for the policy. She celebrated the fact that it permitted the immediate removal of books “instead of having to go through a more lengthy process and possibly keep it on the shelf.” And that is exactly what happened.
The very next morning, I navigated to the Pennridge High School library’s online card catalog. I discovered the first chapter of the district’s book banning initiative. Every single copy of certain titles were marked checked out. Unlike books being borrowed by actual students, these copies were not due back for an entire year.
You can probably guess which books I’m talking about. It was the same titles on the Moms For Liberty hit list. It included sex education books, LGBTQ fiction, coming of age young adult novels, and even a few literary classics. The books were in purgatory and their ultimate fate was a mystery.
I emailed superintendent Bolton that day. I asked him specifically about Looking For Alaska by John Green. Bolton confirmed that all copies of the novel had been pulled for review. He acknowledged that it was the reason for the prolonged due dates. What he was not willing to disclose was the full list of titles that had been pulled.
I was not the only resident asking for this information. Dozens of community members emailed the district and requested the list of pulled library books. It was clear that Pennridge had no interest in being transparent about Policy 109’s implementation. What I could not anticipate was just how far the district would go to keep their secrets.
I submitted a Right-To-Know request for a report from the Pennridge High School library database of “all titles checked out by those patrons that are NOT Students.” The district produced a report, but it was completely bogus. It did not include any of the books pulled for review under Policy 109, including Looking For Alaska.
I hired an open records attorney to negotiate with Pennridge’s attorneys. I was seeking public records that I had every right to access under PA law. Instead of making a good faith effort to just produce an accurate report, the district doubled-down. Pennridge used taxpayer-funded lawyers as a weapon to hide policy implementation from the public.
I had months of legal battles at the Office of Open Records. It cost me a considerable amount of money and aggravation. In fact, I am still fighting that same battle. My attorney petitioned the Court of Common Pleas and we are waiting for an evidentiary trial to be scheduled. Read that full story below:
But in reality, it won’t matter. It’s too late. The judge could rule in our favor and order the district to produce an accurate report. The titles wouldn’t show up at this point. Most books are no longer checked out, they are now gone. Enough time was killed until the books could be deleted from the school libraries. The district was successful in their legal rope-a-dope.
In the Spring of 2023, those same exact checked out titles started disappearing from the online library catalog and reappearing in the district’s weeding logs. On the May 2023 Facilities Committee agenda under “Obsolete items for review” the first round of the great purge was finally documented. Well, it was sort of documented. As an example, all 12 copies of The Perks of Being a Wallflower were in ‘Box 12’ of the log.
There was a very important piece of information not contained in this record; the reason each book was being removed.
Before Policy 109 was rewritten, the weeding log was reserved for normal curation activities. Librarians would remove books that were in poor condition, that were no longer being checked out, or that were otherwise obsolete. It was a way to make room for new books and to cultivate a robust collection for all students.
Since September 2022, librarians were now obligated to also weed books based on the updated age-appropriateness definitions in PA Family’s new version of Policy 109. Now the reason that a book was being weeded became very important to a lot of residents. The weeding process was appearing to serve as the district’s backdoor process to ban books.
Several residents emailed the superintendent and asked which books were weeded for being “age-inappropriate.” Not surprisingly, the answers were less than forthcoming.
The responses all fit the same script. Bolton claimed he was not aware of the reason why any specific title was weeded, the district wouldn’t release the reason why any particular book was being removed, and all decisions were being made by the librarians.
But hold on, these decisions were being made by librarians? Really? I find that highly unlikely, unless they were coerced decisions.
Let’s take three examples; Looking For Alaska by John Green, The Perks of Being A Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, and Beloved by Toni Morrison. Each are highly-acclaimed works of literature and popular with young adult readers.
Looking For Alaska won the 2006 Michael L. Printz Award, Perks of Being A Wallflower won the ALA Best Book for Young Adults award in 2000, and Beloved won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1988. Every single copy of these books, 22 in total, have been weeded from the Pennridge High School Library in 2023.
All three of these titles were once openly celebrated in the hallways of our High School during, you guessed it, Banned Book Week. But Banned Book Week is now banned in Pennridge and it is starting to become clear why. We have become the exact people that we once celebrated not being.
If you are happy about that fact, you should thank our duly-elected school board. Not only did they invite lobbyists to craft policy, the board was apparently nice-enough to help specify which books needed to be “weeded.”
A Pennridge parent submitted a Right-To-Know request in March 2023. It sought correspondence to/from Pennridge school board directors regarding six titles that existed in Pennridge High School library. The resident had reason to believe that the school board had brought complaints about these particular books to district administration. It turns out he was correct. There were emails, a lot of them.
What did the emails say? Unfortunately, the school district’s lawyers withheld correspondences from their Right-To-Know response. But the log detailing the redactions is alarming.
The complaints had resulted in an official “noncriminal investigation.” It also showed that school board directors had engaged in a “discussion of an issue with books and an employee’s conduct which is critical of the employee.” As the email chains progress, files entitled “Book Investigations – September 2022” and “Books – Concerning list- September 2022” began getting attached to the emails.
Below is an example of just one email thread.
Due to the redactions, it is unclear what the complete nature of the correspondence that took place. We may never know all titles that the school board directors recommended for removal. As per usual, the district leveraged every legal loophole to avoid transparency. What we do know is that some of the recently weeded titles happened to be referenced in these conversations and that, alone, is concerning.
There is a process for challenging books in almost every public school district. In Pennridge, it involves submitting a form that becomes part of the public record. It is called the ‘Request for Consideration of Resource Materials.’
When a book challenge is received, the title goes before a “Book Reconsideration Committee.” The committee is composed of 3 administrators, 2 librarians, 1 English teacher, and a high school student. The committee reads the entire book, evaluates it, and makes a recommendation based upon various criteria. That criteria includes many factors including age-appropriateness. Having a fair process in place is critical to protecting the Constitutional rights of students.
What appears to have happened in Pennridge falls outside of that process. The school board directors brought complaints directly to the superintendent. No formal book challenges were submitted. An investigation was initiated. A list of “concerning” library books was created. A couple days later, every copy of certain titles were subsequently checked out from the school library. The books were kept checked out for the remainder of the school year. Finally, those books landed in a weeding log and were discretely tossed from the library.
All this was done in the most bizarrely-opaque way imaginable. The process was completely obfuscated, but the intent to keep these actions from the public is crystal clear. It also appears to have violated the First Amendment.
As the Education Law Center describes it:
Book removals by school districts that rely on irregular procedures without standards or a review process are more likely to violate the First Amendment. For example, courts have found that the removal of noncurricular books by school districts violated the First Amendment when those schools failed to provide a standard or review process regarding book removal, where districts failed to follow their own policy and procedures regarding book removal.
Even with all the gaslighting and obstruction, many parents were still able to figure out what had happened. Residents saw the “Obsolete Items For Review” on the May 8 and June 12 Facilities committee meeting agendas. Buried amongst outdated encyclopedias and old John Grisham novels were a plethora of titles that have been targeted by book banning initiatives across the nation.
Here are just a few examples:
- Beloved – Toni Morrison
- Out of Darkness – Ashley Perez
- Sold – Patricia McCormick
- Looking for Alaska – John Green
- The Perks of Being A wallflower – Stephen Chbosky
- Allegedly – Tiffany D Jackson
- Milk and Honey – Rupi Kaur
- Push – Sapphire
- The Haters – Jesse Andrews
- A Court of Wings and Ruin – Sarah Maas
At the June 12 Facilities Meeting, residents started demanding answers. Everyone knew that we were not dealing with a typical weeding log. During the public comment session, several parents asked the district to provide a reason why each title in the log was removed. Due to the recent policy changes, it was a reasonable request. School board director Bob Cormack said he would provide that information at the next general board meeting.
The next school board meeting rolled around on June 21. Cormack did not make good on his commitment. Cormack, instead, said that he had spoken with administration and provided a reason for one book, a Mark Twain novel. He explained that that particular book was removed because it was poor condition and it would be replaced in the Fall. He seemed to deceptively suggest that the same was true for the entire log.
Cormack then motioned to approve the obsolete items list. The motion was quickly seconded by Board Chair, David Reiss. Thankfully, Director Ron Wurz interjected and held Comark to his word. The board is well aware that the public isn’t inquiring about weathered copies of Huckleberry Finn. Nobody suspects the district of banning Mark Twain books, although, at this point, I wouldn’t put anything past them.
The vote to approve the high school weeding log was tabled that night. It is still unclear if the district will ever disclose the truth about how this policy was implemented. What is clear is the district has waded into legally turbulent waters. The potential of litigation is real. I believe the board and the solicitor are starting to understand that fact.
The pro-bono legal services provided by the PA Family Council have clearly caused the district to run afoul of the Constitution. I would encourage the board to be responsible stewards of our tax dollars and the Bill of Rights. Swallow your pride and just put the books back. If you don’t want your kid to read a Pulitzer Prize winning piece of fiction that’s totally fine. There are processes already in place to prevent your own kid from checking it out.
If there is a book so incredibly dangerous that you believe it needs to be completely removed from the library, there is a process for that as well. Do it the right way. Give the books the due process that they deserve. If you are so sure of your moral righteousness then you shouldn’t be afraid of a little transparency and a spirited public debate. Don’t be cowards and, for the love of god, stop blaming the librarians.
Share this article with your friends.
Email the Pennridge School Board: PSDSchoolboard@pennridge.org
Sign the petition to stop book banning in Bucks County. And please vote in November.