PICKENS COUNTY — Families of high-schoolers and the local NAACP chapter are suing the Pickens County School District in federal court, saying the school board’s decision to ban a book on challenging racism was unconstitutional.
It’s the first lawsuit challenging the push in recent years to ban books on race, gender and sexuality in South Carolina.
The lawsuit requests that a federal judge reinstate “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You” by Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds, and declare the ban unconstitutional, said Allen Chaney, general counsel for the ACLU of South Carolina. Chaney and attorneys with the NAACP filed the lawsuit April 26 in U.S. District Court.
Pickens school district spokesman Darian Byrd told The Post and Courier the district hasn't received the lawsuit and can't comment.
The book is one of the most-popular targets of book challenges in South Carolina.
Its removal in Pickens County came after parents complained about the book’s use at D.W. Daniel High School.
In response, school and district review committees considered the complaints and recommended “Stamped” stay in Pickens schools, saying it was appropriate for high school students and aligned with various state education standards.
The school board voted unanimously to remove it anyway.
Kendi and Reynolds argue in the book that race has “always been used to gain and keep power, to create dynamics that separate and silence,” according to Kendi’s website.
The lawsuit claims that the school board violated the First Amendment when it unanimously voted in October 2022 to ban the book from all Pickens County schools for five years.
The ban was a “really simple example of censorship,” Chaney said. “Pickens wasn’t able to articulate anything about 'Stamped' — aside from their objections to the ideas of the book — that wasn’t appropriate for kids.”
“You know, it's not just politics," Chaney said. "It's also an all-White school board removing ideas about race on the basis that they don't like those ideas. That sends a really clear and harmful signal to children of color in Pickens County that they don't matter and that their experience as a racial minority in Pickens County isn’t worth exploring in the books that are provided to them by the school district.”
There’s been a significant increase in the number of school library book challenges in South Carolina and elsewhere in recent years.
After parent complaints about the book, “Gender Queer: A Memoir” by Maia Kobabe, Gov. Henry McMaster in November 2021 called on the S.C. Department of Education to investigate it and other books. State education officials then advised school districts to review their book collections.
In 2022, people objected to books 307 times in more than a dozen school districts across the state, according to the South Carolina Association of School Librarians. That’s up from eight complaints in 2021. The challenges targeted 144 books, a majority of which were about issues related to race, gender or sexual identity.
“Stamped,” the book at the center of the Pickens lawsuit, was the second-most challenged book after “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” by Stephen Chbosky. That book was also removed in Pickens County, but the lawsuit is only challenging the removal of “Stamped.”
The lawsuit alleges the challenge against “Stamped” was politically motivated and not based on any academic concerns about the book.
Three parents challenged “Stamped” in Pickens, according to the lawsuit.
One parent stated she had not read the book but believed it promoted socialism. Another alleged it constituted indoctrination. A third claimed the book’s assignment violated a state budget proviso on so-called “partisanship” curriculum that says schools can’t teach that one race or sex is inherently superior to another, among other things.
A school-level committee reviewed the book after it was challenged and decided it was developmentally appropriate for high school students, the lawsuit states. One of the parents appealed that decision, which prompted a district-level review. That committee unanimously decided the book could stay on shelves and be used as a classroom resource.
Parents asked the school board to overturn those decisions.
The board heard public comment about the book over two meetings this past August and September before voting 7-0 in favor of removing “Stamped” from the district’s libraries and classrooms for five years.
Matthew Kutilek, a former candidate for the state Legislature and combat veteran, said at an Aug. 22, 2022, school board meeting he would “fight to the death” to ensure his children and the children of the people in the audience aren’t being “indoctrinated by racist, anti-American, Marxist ideology perpetrated” by Kendi.
Republican State Rep. Thomas Beach of Piedmont spoke against the book at the meeting prior to his becoming a legislator. He said he and other legislators in the ultra-conservative Freedom Caucus were considering adding some “teeth” when it comes to enforcing teaching from books like “Stamped.”
“What really concerns me is that we see … what is being taught in this book, and that we have no repercussions, no consequences for breaking state law,” Beach said.
He asked board members to advise teachers on state law, but he didn’t say what law was being broken by teaching “Stamped.”
The lawsuit alleges the book’s removal was based on political pressure from the Freedom Caucus, as well as a group called Conservatives of the Upstate and Moms for Liberty, a far-right parents’ group.
“It was the board’s hostility to the opinions contained in the book, not the book’s educational suitability, that drove the decision to remove the book,” the lawsuit states.