After a 45-minute hearing on April 1, a federal judge is set to decide whether dozens of books summarily removed from library shelves in the Matanuska-Susitna (Mat-Su) Borough School District in Alaska must be returned to the shelves while a lawsuit challenging their removal is heard.

The hearing comes nearly a year after administrators in the Mat-Su district, located just north of Anchorage, responded to a handful of parental complaints by pulling 56 titles from school libraries without any formal review, including such classics as Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five as well as a number of books involving people of color, the LGBTQ community, and adolescent health. That action led to a lawsuit filed in November 2023 by a group of eight local plaintiffs, supported by the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska and advocacy group the Northern Justice Project. In January, the plaintiffs filed a motion for a preliminary injunction seeking the return all the books pending a proper review.

At the hearing, attorneys for the school board urged district court judge Sharon Gleason not to get involved in what was described as “about the fourth inning” of an ongoing review process, stressing that school officials have wide latitude to decide what’s appropriate for students. “Sometimes librarians make mistakes,” district lawyers told the court at one point, adding that some books have already been returned to library shelves after being considered by a review committee.

But lawyers for plaintiffs said they could not confirm the return of any books to library shelves, and pointed out to the court that "the review committee" cited by the defendants wasn’t even assembled until after the books at issue were pulled. While the plaintiffs agreed that school officials have wide discretion to review books, the facts are clear in this case that the books in question were improperly pulled from libraries without any due process in breach of established case law, and insisted that every day students are denied access constitutes a grave constitutional injury.

Gleason declined to rule from the bench, but a decision on the injunction is expected to come within weeks, if not days. If granted, the preliminary injunction would return the 56 book titles to school library shelves and pause the removal of any other books pending a further order from the court.

The latest move in Alaska comes after a federal judge in Florida ruled in January that a similar federal lawsuit over book bans in Escambia County, Fla., can proceed, and rebuked school officials. In his June 12 order, judge T. Kent Wetherell held that that school officials have the power to restrict access to properly challenged books but cannot simply pull books they disagree with or find objectionable from schools and school library shelves.

“The freedom to read and access information is one of the most important rights that Alaskans and Americans hold. No state that bans books is a free state,” said Ruth Botstein, Legal Director for the ACLU of Alaska, in a statement. “We hope Judge Gleason will grant this preliminary injunction so that these award-winning and classic book titles can be placed back on school shelves in the Mat-Su District.”