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Book bans: Books are innocent until proven guilty, too

Amanda Darrow, director of youth, family and education programs at the Utah Pride Center, poses with books on Dec. 16, 2021, that have been the subject of complaints from parents in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)
Amanda Darrow, director of youth, family and education programs at the Utah Pride Center, poses with books on Dec. 16, 2021, that have been the subject of complaints from parents in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)
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HUNT VALLEY, Md. (TND) — "Gender Queer: A Memoir" by Maia Kobabe. "All Boys Aren’t Blue" by George M. Johnson. The "Girls Who Code" series by multiple authors. "Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out" by Susan Kuklin.

These titles are among 1,586 books being banned in some way in the U.S. They’re either removed from school libraries, prohibited in classrooms, both or banned from circulation amid challenges by parents, educators, administrators, board members or responses to laws passed by legislatures. The movement is affecting 1,145 unique book titles, 874 authors, 198 illustrators and nine translators, impacting the creative work of 1,081 people altogether. The bans span over 86 school districts in 26 states, representing 2,899 schools with a combined enrollment of more than 2 million students. Out of all the bans, 41% of them are tied to orders from state officials or elected lawmakers. And it all happened between July 1, 2021 and March 31, 2022.

More books were banned in 2021 than ever before.

“This is something dramatically different from what we’ve ever seen before,” said Suzanne Nossel, the CEO of PEN America, a nonprofit founded in the wake of World War I to connect writers across all national ethnic divides and defend their work.

PEN America compiled all these findings into the first formal analysis it has conducted into book bans. PEN’s mission is working to “ensure that people everywhere have the freedom to create literature, to convey information and ideas, to express their views, and to access the views, ideas and literatures of others.”

Its Free Expression Programs defend the First Amendment rights of writers and journalists, from advocating for free speech on college campuses to focusing on regions with free expression challenges, like Eurasia, Saudi Arabia, Myanmar and China.

The organization has been logging efforts to ban books in the nation for years, but Nossel said they would only pop up a couple of times a year. PEN would get a report from a teacher or librarian, and fire off a letter to the school system about how book bans are a form of censorship, and usually, the book would be restored.

“We honestly didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about it,” Nossel said. “When I first joined PEN, frankly, I was surprised the organization still worked on book bans at all. I thought, you know, ‘That is so retrograde, so 1950s,’ and something I couldn’t believe was still happening anywhere in America.”

But, the surge over the past nine months shows the efforts have expanded rapidly, and there are consistent themes among titles being pulled. Forty percent of the titles have to do with LGBTQ+ topics; 41% have people of color as the main characters; 25% deal with sexual or health-related content; 22% address race and racism; 16% cover historical topics or figures; and 11% are about death and grief.

The Supreme Court has said communities have the right to decide what books are going to be read in schools. But, a case from 1982 (Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District v. Pico) ruled, “Local school boards may not remove books from school library shelves simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books and seek by their removal to prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion or other matters of opinion.”

This is the base officials have for handling challenges to books on the shelves, but Nossel noted that the ruling was a “kind of fragmented plurality decision.” She said it established that administrators and board members can’t just ban books willy nilly, but it didn’t pave a clear path of how the challenges should be handled.

The American Library Association lists objective selection criteria for library professionals and best practices for reconsideration policies when a book is banned. The process recommends forming a committee with an odd number of members to review the material and calls on them to: set aside personal beliefs; read the full text of the material and reviews of it; keep passages in context and present a report with majority and minority opinions to the governing body. This process also prohibits the material from being removed from the shelves while it’s under consideration.

According to Nossel, this process isn’t being followed around the country. In fact, PEN’s analysis found that established procedures to approach the handling of book bans in a manner consistent with the First Amendment are not being respected in more than 90% of cases.

“Those practices are well established. Many districts have adopted them and say that they’re committed to them, but they are being essentially thrown out the window,” Nossel said. “A book gets brought up at a school board meeting, and all of the sudden, it’s being pulled off the shelves or librarians are taking books off shelves preemptively because they’re worried about somebody coming after them.

That is a real retreat from respect for the First Amendment rights of students as recognized by the Supreme Court. The rights of students depend on going through a kind of due process to adjudicate these book bans.”

An example of this process in action would be restricting certain books to certain age groups. If there’s a book dealing explicitly with sexual issues, districts are welcome to make them off-limits to elementary-aged children. Nossel said this process “recognizes that as students mature, they can deal with these concepts, that it’s important for them to begin to become familiar with sexuality and all that entails.”

“That debate, I think, is perfectly appropriate about what is the right age limit. In these cases that we’re seeing, though, these are overwhelmingly books that have been available and accessible in a certain setting, and that now are being kind of snatched away,” Nossel said. “These are concerted, organized campaigns to target books as a way of mobilizing parents, citizens, voters to believe that something is amiss in our schools, that their ideology is being rammed down children’s throats, that different kinds of lifestyles are being glorified in schools.”

PEN’s findings led to a House Subcommittee hearing, held by Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., chairman of the Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. The event brought witnesses including high school students, authors, librarians, teachers and parents, who testified to the negative impacts the book bans can have on students and teachers.

Raskin pointed out that the vast majority of the books being targeted in this movement are not mandatory or required as part of any curriculum.

“Students can pull them off the shelves if they want to and check them out. Or they can ignore them entirely,” he said.

In his opening statement, he likened the First Amendment to Abraham Lincoln’s “golden apple of liberty.”

“Everybody just wants to take one bite out of it. Someone hates left-wing speech and wants to censor it and someone hates right-wing speech and wants to censor it. Someone wants to censor hate speech about gay people and someone wants to censor speech about the love lives of gay people. Someone wants to censor Mark Twain’s "Huckleberry Finn" because it uses the N-Word, and someone else wants to censor Ibram Kendi’s "Antiracist Baby" because they think it means babies can be racists,” he said. “Everybody wants to take a bite out of the apple, and if we allow all those bites, there will simply be no apple left.”

Texas leads the nation out of the 26 states enacting book bans, with 713 bans in 16 districts. Other states at the top of the list include Pennsylvania, Florida, Oklahoma, Kansas, Indiana, Tennessee, Virginia, Missouri, Georgia, New York and Utah.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has been pressuring school boards to remove what he describes as “pornography” and “obscenity” from school libraries. He cited two books that he believes fall into that category: "Gender Queer" by Maia Kobabe and "In the Dream House" by Carmen Maria Machado. Both contain sexual content and LGBTQ+ characters.

Obscene material doesn’t enjoy First Amendment protections in schools, according to Miller v. California (1973). But, Nossel said that this is leading to many books being swept up that fall short of obscenity or pornography because they’re not going through the rigorous review process.

“I think [there’s] a feeling that the presentation of those lifestyles and life choices represents a threat in some communities,” the CEO said, adding that they’re books that have “been around for years that suddenly people are characterizing as a type of pornography.”

The authors of PEN’s analysis further emphasized, “The question of whether the motivations of the school boards that remove these books are constitutionally permissible would be better elucidated if they adhered to rigorous process rather than ad hoc, highly charged acts.”

The First Amendment Encyclopedia says materials can only be deemed “obscene” if it meets three criteria, which are the three prongs of the Miller test:

  1. "Whether the average person applying contemporary community standards would find the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest;
  2. "Whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law; and
  3. "Whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.”

PEN America said the books being targeted for removal have very few exceptions that would fail this test based on state laws. The National Coalition Against Censorship wrote a letter to Texas officials pointing this out: “It is immediately clear that no school district in Texas has ever purchased obscenity or child pornography.”

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill last month requiring school libraries to post more thorough reviews of their collections and seek community input on new additions, which has critics of the bill saying it makes it easier for parents to challenge books and instructional materials of which they don’t approve. Supporters of the bill say it allows parents to be more involved in their children’s education.

Book bans are just one example of Republican lawmakers’ push to galvanize parents who want to be more involved in what their kids learn in school. The movement was at the forefront of the gubernatorial election in Virginia, where Republican Glenn Youngkin beat out incumbent Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe in a blue state.

Nossel said the political hay that’s led to book bans comes from parents growing frustrated throughout the pandemic, with school closures compromising their children’s education. But, she said she thinks it’s a “real risk” to use book bans as political messaging headed into midterm elections this November.

“Yes, parents ought to have a say. There are legitimate discussions to be had about how American history is being taught, what books are being emphasized in schools, all of that,” Nossel said. “But what we don’t want is the heavy hand of government intruding and dictating to librarians, educators, professionals and families what is within and what is outside limits. I mean, they’re parents’ rights on all sides, and they’re also children’s rights.”

That being said, she pointed to what PEN America has also documented that occurs on the left side of the political spectrum: censorship on college campuses, concerns about speaker invitations, calls for safe spaces and trigger warnings, a lot of which make students and teachers hesitant to bring up certain topics on campus.

“What I think about is a fear that free speech is losing its moorings on both the right and the left,” she said. “What’s startling to us as a free expression organization is, yes, I think we have to go after censoriousness on the left and point out how it runs counter to all of the movements and ideals that the left prizes. Notwithstanding that, though, what we see the counterpoint on the right, which is to invoke the means of government — legislation, bills enacted in statehouses, actions by school boards. That is bringing the weight and force of the government to bear to suppress speech on the basis of ideology.

“So much as you may bemoan what you call ‘cancel culture’ or calls for safe spaces, I think you have to recognize that the minute the power of the state is invoked, this is something beyond just a Twitter mob or a bunch of angry students.”

She pointed out that the First Amendment doesn’t protect Americans from shaming, shunning or sparking controversy — it protects them from the government banning or punishing speech based on ideology or views.

Nossel said she anticipates a new federal law being passed in the coming years to address these books being challenged, as challenges to book bans bring up processes that were not followed. In the meantime, she said librarians and school officials need to stand up and insist that books can’t be removed until they see the due process. As she put it, “It’s sort of innocent until proven guilty, in this case for a book.”

As Americans think about pocketbook issues heading into midterms, librarians and free speech advocates refer to book bans as “backpack issues.”

“These are affecting our children — whether it’s your children, your grandchildren or a rising generation of voters and citizens in your community. What are we exposing them to? Are we bringing them up to believe that if a politician doesn’t like a certain idea, they can step in and get those books removed from library shelves or classroom shelves? Is that the kind of system we want to operate in?” Nossel said. “This is not a way a democratic society ought to behave. The fact is, we may feel like we’re living in the internet age, but books matter.”

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