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Book banners target public libraries
The campaign to censor America's libraries is expanding.
A new report from the American Library Association (ALA) finds that this year, between January 1 and August 31, there have been "695 attempts to censor library materials and services and documented challenges to 1,915 unique titles." The number of books challenged "has increased by 20 percent from the same reporting period in 2022." Last year was the highest number of challenges recorded since the ALA began collecting data two decades ago. In all of 2019, there were only 377 challenges.
The ALA’s data only includes permanent bans of books subject to a formal challenge. Since many books are taken off the shelves without a formal challenge or while such a challenge is pending, the report functions as a snapshot of the overall issue.
While much of the attention on book bans in the United States has centered around school libraries, the ALA report reveals that censorship efforts in 2023 are just as likely to target public libraries. According to the report, 49% of challenges to books were in public libraries — up from 16% in 2022.
“Expanding beyond their well-organized attempts to sanitize school libraries, groups with a political agenda have turned their crusade to public libraries, the very embodiment of the First Amendment in our society," Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, said. "This places politics over the well-being and education of young people and everyone’s right to access and use the public library.”
For the most part, the book bans are not being pursued by individual parents concerned about a particular book. Instead they are coordinated efforts by ideological organizations seeking to purge scores of books from the shelves. Challenges of 100 books or more are not uncommon.
In Front Royal, Virginia, right-wing activists held "two book-banning BBQ events." Attendees were offered food, beer, and challenge forms targeting books at the local public library. The events resulted in 500 challenges to 150 books in the Samuels Public Library system. Most challenged books had LGBTQ characters or themes. In June, the Warren County Board of Supervisors voted to withhold 75% of the library budget until the library takes action to “protect our children from sexually explicit material and ensure parents have control over their children's reading choices." The library director resigned last month.
This week, a group of 175 artists and entertainers led by LeVar Burton, including Ariana Grande, Guillermo del Toro, Padma Lakshmi, Ron Perlman, and Amanda Gorman, signed an open letter denouncing book bans. "We cannot stress enough how these censorious efforts will not end with book bans," the letter states. "It’s only a matter of time before regressive, suppressive ideologues will shift their focus toward other forms of art and entertainment, to further their attacks and efforts to scapegoat marginalized communities, particularly BIPOC and LGBTQ+ folks."
In a recent interview with the New York Times, ALA President Emily Drabinski explained that while "attacks on libraries right now are shaped and framed as attacks on books" these efforts are really "attacks on people and attacks on children." In retaliation for advocating against book bans, some conservative states — including Montana, Missouri and Texas — have announced they are "severing ties with the ALA."
Florida automates book bans
In Florida, legislators recently passed a law to make it easier to ban books. The law, HB 1069, which was approved by Governor Ron DeSantis (R) on May 17, states that, among other things, “Parents shall have the right to read passages from any material that is subject to an objection.” If a school board chooses to deny someone “the right to read passages” due to obscene content, the law states that “the school district shall discontinue the use of the material.”
Right-wing groups in Florida are attempting to use a broad interpretation of this provision to get books removed from the shelves. According to the Observer, a chapter of Moms for Liberty “was successful in pulling 34 books after the school board chair stopped people from reading passages or placed a content warning on the speaker” at a recent School Board meeting in Indian River County. It is in dispute whether these removals were required since a passage does not necessarily meet the legal definition of obscenity just because a speaker was prevented from speaking. Further, whether a book is considered legally obscene is not based on an isolated passage but on whether the book as a whole “lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.”
Parents in Volusia County are planning to use the new law after being disappointed by the amount of books banned in the 2022-2023 academic year. According to the Observer, a “total of 89 books were challenged” in the district last year, and two of those books were removed. Parents are “hoping to get more books removed” this year and are “relying on Florida House Bill 1069 to get this accomplished.”
The law, which went into effect on July 1, also states that “[a]ny material that is subject to an objection [for obscene content]… must be removed within 5 school days of receipt of the objection and remain unavailable to students of that school until the objection is resolved.” Instructional material that may be removed includes content that is “pornographic,” “depicts or describes sexual conduct,” or material that is deemed “not suited to students needs” or “inappropriate for the grade level.” The law also states that book objections that are “not resolved at the district level can now be reviewed by the State Board of Education,” which has been filled with conservative appointees by DeSantis. The law also expands Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law to prohibit “classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity” through the eighth grade, rather than third grade.
Book bans are bigger in Texas
With 30 book challenges at school and public libraries in the first six months of the year, Texas has the highest number of attempts to ban or restrict books, the latest ALA report shows. The ALA's 2022 report found that Texas had the most book challenges, with 93 attempts recorded. This number, Axios reports, is “nearly double the total in the second-highest state, Pennsylvania, which had 56 attempts on 302 titles.”
“Book challenges and censorship are nothing new. Libraries have faced these issues as long as libraries have been in existence,” Texas Library Association executive director Shirley Robinson said. “But the volume of challenges, and the vitriol against librarians, is unprecedented.”
Just this week, a teacher in Southeast Texas was fired after assigning a graphic novel based on the diary of Anne Frank to an eighth-grade class. According to school district officials, the book, which has previously been at the center of censorship battles in other districts, was “never approved.” But local news outlet KFDM reports that “it was on a reading list sent to parents at the start of the school year.”
In another Southeast Texas School District, Katy Independent School District (ISD), an internal committee removed 14 books in August and September. Titles removed include Wacky Wednesday by Dr. Seuss, Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret by Judy Blume, and Draw Me a Star by Eric Carle. The district claims all the titles that were removed are “inappropriate for children” but has yet to release any details on the reasoning behind the removals, The Houston Chronicle reports.
The bans in Katy ISD follow a change in the district’s policy that made it easier to remove books. Under the amended policy, approved at the end of July, district trustees can “ban reading materials and prevent incoming materials without a review committee” if at least “two board members agree.” Prior to the change, “Katy ISD removed four books in 2022, eight in 2021 and four in the first seven months of 2023.”
Biden appoints "book ban coordinator"
This month, the U.S. Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights tapped Matt Nosanchuk as its “book ban coordinator.” In his role, Nosanchuk, whose previous work has focused on Jewish and LGBTQ issues, will be tasked with “monitor[ing] book removal efforts” and determining whether a book ban violates federal civil rights law. Nosanchuk will also “provide new trainings for schools nationwide” on these topics, including on how to “submit complaints about potential violations to the Office for Civil Rights.” So far, the first training, which will be sponsored by the ALA, has “1,000 attendees” registered.
The Education Department’s appointment marks a growing recognition of the threat of book censorship. In May, the department found that “a Georgia school district may have violated its students’ civil rights by removing certain books from its libraries.” According to officials, the “debate concerning the books’ removal left some students feeling targeted.”
“As we’re seeing this issue of book removals and book bans surging around the country, it’s important to remind every school community that they have a federal civil rights obligation to not operate a hostile environment based on the race or sex of their students,” Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the Department of Education Catherine E. Lhamon told the New York Times. “We are prepared to enforce those laws.”