Photo (cc) 1928 by Blue Mountains Library, Local Studies

There’s an unidentified person somewhere out there who has richly earned a New England Muzzle Award, and I hope they’ll step forward to claim their trophy. Because this censorious busybody, hiding behind a cloak of anonymity, actually called the Great Barrington Police Department recently to complain that the middle school library had a copy of the notorious-though-it-shouldn’t-be book “Gender Queer,” by Maia Kobabe, on its shelves.

The oft-banned book, which includes graphic images, is used by a number of educators as a resource for young people who are questioning their sexuality. At the W.E.B. DuBois Middle School, though, a police officer actually showed up after school hours and, accompanied by the principal, paid a visit to the library so he could see for himself. According to Heather Bellow of The Berkshire Eagle, the officer actually turned on his body camera before beginning his search. “The officer then searched for the book and planned to remove the book as part of the investigation,” Bellow reports, but he couldn’t locate it and ended up leaving. (Bellow also wrote the initial story about the incident.)

Now, you may ask why the police department in this Western Massachusetts town isn’t being awarded a Muzzle. The reason is that it’s not clear they did anything wrong. The person who called the police department sent images that they claimed were from an obscene book. Obscenity, a tiny subset of indecent material, is actually illegal. It can be hard to define (the late Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once memorably said, “I know it when I see it”), but you can imagine that it’s pretty bad given that nearly all indecency is protected by the First Amendment. To be clear: “Gender Queer” doesn’t come within a mile of violating any obscenity laws. But Great Barrington Police Chief Paul Storti told Adam Reilly of GBH News that his officers were obliged to respond to what may have been a legitimate complaint. Reilly quoted Storti as saying:

The interaction with the teacher was cordial. The officer didn’t touch anything. They didn’t search. They basically asked if the book was still there, to give the context of what we were dealing with dealing with. The teacher said the book wasn’t there, and the officer left.

I’ll grant you that Storti’s comments are at odds with the Eagle’s report that the officer “searched for the book,” but I’ll have to leave that unresolved for now. The larger issue is that a member of the community saw fit to mobilize law enforcement because of the possible presence of a much-praised book.

The fallout has been significant. The ACLU is seeking the body-camera footage. More than 100 students and staff walked out of Monument Regional High School to protest the attempt at censorship, earning praise from Gov. Maura Healey, who said, “Book banning has no place in Massachusetts.” And the Eagle ran a letter to the editor today that said in part, “Let’s make the book recommended reading for all middle school parents and faculty, and then organize a public forum to discuss the book.”

Although the Great Barrington Police Department has avoided the ignominy of receiving a Muzzle Award, Chief Storti and Berkshire District Attorney Timothy Shugrue, whose office also got involved, need to engage in some discussion and training about what to do the next time something like this happens. Because we all know that it will.

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