Free Speech Nonprofits Warily Eye Book Bans


Book bans in the United States are a recurring part of the nation's history, and have always gone through ebbs and flows. However, the country is currently enduring a sustained wave of book suppression unlike any since the 1950s, and the coordination and breadth of the attacks raises the question of whether we're seeing the crest of those efforts, or merely the beginning. Nonprofits have always been involved in the battle to preserve free thought, factual information, and access to diverse points of view, and it's a fight that is growing increasingly difficult as censorship threatens to overwhelm every previously reliable check and balance.

The first documented U.S. book ban occurred all the way back in 1637, when Thomas Morton's anti-Puritan text New English Canaan was targeted, but anti-censorship forces didn't fight back in an organized way until the 1980s, during yet another wave of bans. One of the major events in that pushback occurred in 1982, when the American Booksellers Association, a national nonprofit organization established in 1900, staged an exhibit at that year's BookExpo America trade show featuring 500 books in padlocked metal cages, along with a sign stating that the books were deemed by some to be dangerous. That same year, the nonprofit American Library Association, or ALA, christened Banned Books Week, designed to highlight the consequences of censorship.

Countries that succumb to book banning do not make for a proud roster of healthy societies. In addition to McCarthyist America, they include fascist Germany, apartheid South Africa, and Stalinist Russia. However, despite the fact that free expression advocates cite these examples as failures, bans have worked. Authors' careers have been damaged and their reach suppressed. The criminalization of books is always an attractive blunt instrument for social control, and is constantly attempted even in the least repressive countries. Most Americans probably believe guardrails such as the First Amendment will hold censorship at bay, but only book bans enacted by the federal government are potentially unconstitutional. School boards and state legislators generally can do as they wish unless their policies violate other parts of the Constitution. That's why, as an example, attempts to prevent the teaching of evolution fail—they violate the First Amendment, which bars endorsement of any particular religion.

In April, the free expression nonprofit PEN America reported that the previous nine months had seen more than 1,500 instances of books banned or restricted in U.S. libraries and schools, targeting 1,145 separate titles by 874 authors, 198 illustrators, and nine translators. According to the nonprofit group EveryLibrary, since 2020 six states have passed laws requiring school districts to formally collaborate with parents on which books are used in schools. 98% of book bans violate guidelines created by the ALA and the nonprofit National Coalition Against Censorship designed to protect free speech and expression while formalizing community grievances. In other words, most bans and restrictions were rammed through without neutral due process.

The ALA goes all the way back to the year 1876. As an institution, it has seen plenty. Its executive director, Tracie Hall, has not minced words about the current book bans, stating that, “Just as during the McCarthy era there was a desire to suppress social change. We see that happening again. Especially as people of color and LGBTQIA individuals seek more social inclusion and political power.” Even when books ultimately survive attempts at restrictions, they're usually removed from shelves during investigations, a guilty-before-innocent presumption that encourages challenges in even greater numbers.

While many of the most challenged books are award winning or bestselling novels—including Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner, and J.K. Rowling's entire Harry Potter series—the majority are more obscure. They tend to deal with sexual matters perceived by censorship advocates as outside the norm. George Johnson's queer memoir All Boys Aren't Blue has been challenged in at least 14 states. The ALA found that in 2021 five of the top ten most challenged books featured LGBTQIA content. Among those are children's and teen books that attempt to preach gender inclusion and acceptance, but which opponents feel are inappropriate for young readers.

Comic books and graphic novels have also been targets for many years. The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund fought more than 20 attempted bans in 2015 alone, and notes that since 2011, at least one graphic novel has made the ALA's yearly list of most challenged books. Art Spiegelman's Holocaust graphic novel Maus has become a perennial target. The bans have even moved out of the realm of fiction and into textbooks. Texas legislators recently passed a law that forbids the teaching of material that could cause “discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress on account of the individual’s race or sex.” In effect, it's now illegal to teach Texas children in any detailed way about slavery. State educators have even proposed bills that, if passed, could force teachers to refer to slavery as “involuntary relocation.” George Orwell would grimly smile.

The ban fervor has been particularly hard on teachers and librarians, who have been threatened with criminal prosecution for lesson plans or for stocking books. Librarians may be poised to leave the profession in large numbers, similar to what has already happened with teachers. Gretchen Corsillo, director of the Rutherford Public Library in New Jersey, writing for Salon, said a mass exodus of librarians means losing, “access to one of the last free, open and climate-controlled community spaces where people from all walks of life can gather freely,” in addition to losing knowledge, experience, and a weapon in the fight against false information and fake news. This is precisely why libraries have been targeted throughout history, as when Sarajevo's National and University Library was torched in 1992, leading to the loss of three million books. Scholars such as Christopher M. Finan, who serves as executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, have written that without free speech, democracy is simply impossible.

Much of the book censorship movement's energy in the U.S. derives from a shift in the idea of educators as trained experts entrusted to help oversee youth development, to one in which they're mere extensions of parental preference. Instead of preparing students for the world they will live in, teachers are being forcibly transformed into protectors. Under this paradigm, the previous cohort of teachers aren't seen as helping to produce well-rounded citizens, but rather trying to harm credulous and defenseless children. Promoting diverse viewpoints is recast as forced indoctrination—sexually, in the minds of many parents. For that reason, many of the books in question have been challenged on the grounds of obscenity. Teachers have been accused of “grooming” children.

No nonprofit is more involved in the current battles over free expression than the ACLU, which typically stands on the front lines during such moments. Within the past year, the group has waded into ban and restriction battles in Virginia, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, Idaho, Tennessee, Ohio, and elsewhere. The ACLU makes no distinctions, resisting censorship from all points on the political compass. It's worth noting, though, that while progressives have taken exception to books for perceived insensitivity along the lines of race and gender, and such episodes garner plenty of press coverage, the vast majority of censorship efforts originate from the right, and are better organized, and far better funded. EveryLibrary executive director John Chrastka told The Washington Post that these attacks represent a “purging of ideas and identities that has no precedent in the United States of America.”

The nonprofits that have taken up the cudgel in the midst of this new censorship fight are too many to name. The Author's Guild, the parent organization of The Authors Guild Foundation, has launched the Banned Books Club. EveryLibrary is tracking proposed changes to free speech laws nationwide. and Action Network have put together anti-book ban petitions. Groups ranging from the Chinese American Librarians Association to the Steve and Loree Potash Family Foundation have joined the ALA's new Unite Against Book Bans campaign. Students themselves have gotten involved too. In Pennsylvania, students at Central York High School are at the forefront of the Panther Anti-Racist Union, or PARU, which forced local officials to reverse a ban on anti-racist literature.

The work of these groups will likely never end. The new James Webb Telescope has used advanced technology to amaze the world with exponentially more detailed views of the cosmos. New technology and computing skills, improved scholarship, and alternate directions in research have likewise made Webb-like breakthroughs in the understanding of DNA and gender, structural racism, and history. New data about climate and economics have called into question the very foundation of western societies. No wonder, then, that fierce, well-funded resistance has been thrown up against new knowledge exposing errors and bias in previously entrenched beliefs. In Florida earlier this year, the department of education rejected nearly half of new math books proposed for school usage. The books made anodyne mathematical examples out of rates of vaccine uptake, global warming, racial inequality, gender pay gaps, and more. All this factual information was labeled “indoctrination” by the state's governor Ron DeSantis.

How far are censors willing to go? Two recent bills give an indication. In Iowa, a law may pass that removes the requirement for librarians to possess Master's degrees in order to obtain employment in K-12 schools; and, in Idaho, a bill was introduced that would remove exemptions from prosecution for public libraries, schools, colleges, universities, and museums for distribution of material deemed harmful to minors. In those bills, one can discern a two-pronged attack: remove experts where possible in favor of untrained reactionaries, and leverage the power of big government to threaten those who dare to remain in their jobs. The latter bill was defeated, but only for now. It and others like it will be back. However, if historical trends hold true, people will eventually regard the 2020s the same way they regard the 1950s—as a dark period where censorship failed.

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