In one of my previous lives as a freelance writer, I was active in the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA). One of ASJA’s yearly efforts was a celebration of the freedom to read through commemorating Banned Books Week, which you can read about here.
One year, I organized a reading of banned books at a Waldenbooks store in a nearby shopping mall. I was pleased to snare two good speakers: our member of Congress and an opinion writer for the county paper.
The Congressman was particularly affecting as he read from John Steinbeck’s classic The Grapes of Wrath. He noted that his mother had been a librarian who’d instilled in him at an early age the importance of not only reading per se, but also having the freedom to read whatever one chose.
There wasn’t a huge turnout, but I proudly wore my “I Read Banned Books” pin and felt the event had been a small success in an ongoing battle that must always be waged.
Now, 70 bills have been introduced by Republican legislators in at least 31 states to tell educators what they may and may not teach their students, and school libraries are being forced to remove books that cover topics some parents and the culture war politicians who often incite them deem inappropriate or offensive—even pornographic.
These books cover sex and sex education, LBGTQ issues, anything about race that might make white students feel “uncomfortable”—such as a fact-based education about slavery in the US and its lingering impact—and other topics.
Recently, a Tennessee school board voted unanimously to ban Maus, the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel written as an animal fable about the author’s parents in the Holocaust. Art Spiegelman, who wrote Maus, called the banning “Orwellian.”
Spiegelman agreed that the book contains “disturbing imagery” but said “You know what? It’s disturbing history.”
He’d read the minutes of the school board meeting and concluded the members were asking: “Why can’t they teach a nicer Holocaust?”
The politics behind this assault is obvious. The very vocal and ambitious governors of Texas and Florida have been in the forefront of these campaigns, calling for investigations into the titles available in their state’s school libraries. This is scary stuff.
“It’s definitely become politicized,” said Shirley Robinson, executive director of the Texas Library Association, quoted in an Education Week article. “We haven’t seen or heard of challenges like these probably in the last 40 years.”
Several of my friends who are retired teachers have lamented our collective failure over decades to train students to be discerning and critical thinkers. Their belief seems to me supported by the shouts from adherents of the Big Lie and other conspiracy theories on the Internet, the anti-science mindset that has led to anti-vaccine and anti-masking hysteria that has prolonged and worsened the pandemic, and other signs of intellectual vacuity.
We dare not allow the growth of this dangerous, small-minded attempt to deprive young people of the opportunity to assess for themselves the validity of ideas that may frighten their elders. Book banning is right up there with vote suppression as ways to weaken our democracy.
No one disputes that parents have the right to be involved in what their own children read, but the National Coalition Against Censorship points out that policies governing these decisions are in place in almost all communities already—as are mechanisms to handle challenges.
Still, there’s clearly a need to make parents aware that the issue of what their children shouldn’t read is another far right grievance wedge—this one using school library books as campaign fodder.
And even if these parents are acting out of the best of intentions, I think life teaches us that parents do their children no favor by cloistering them in an existence that will not prepare them for the real world.
Fortunately, a backlash has begun. The article in Education Week describes a group of Texas librarians who reacted to what they call the politicians and parents’ “war on books.” Via a website they created, they offer “I support #FReadom” apparel and tote bags. They’re also constantly registering their opposition with their state legislators.
According to Education Week, this small group is part of a larger movement of librarians, teachers, students, parents, and book authors in Texas and other states to combat this censorship trend.
PEN America, an organization devoted to protecting free expression in the United States and worldwide, is distributing a tip sheet for students to help them respond in a number of ways.
They urge students to appear before their local school boards.
“Remind your school leadership that you, as a student, should be the focal point of the school. Talk to them about why a challenged book is important to you.”
Students in Granbury, Texas, confronted the school board members who were censoring their reading choices.
“I’m simply going to say that no government—and public school is an extension of government—has ever banned books and banned information from its public and been remembered in history as the good guys,” said a high school junior.
One of the banned books (I’m not sure where) is in a category by itself, but the threat it poses to those who choose to ban books is clear.
Congressman Jamie Raskin, a former Constitutional Law professor and expert on the First Amendment, wrote a book called “We the Students: Supreme Court Cases For and About Students,” now in its third edition.
I saw Raskin as he responded to an interviewer’s query about the banning of his book. “They should have read my book first before banning it,” he said, referring to the chapter on Island Trees School District v Pico (1982).
In that case, the Supreme Court held, according to the Bill of Rights Institute, “that the First Amendment limits the power of junior high and high school officials to remove books from school libraries because of their content.”
Briefly, the school board ignored the recommendations of a committee of parents and school staff that it had created–and ordered removal of eleven books it deemed “anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic, and just plain filthy.”
The books included Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer, Richard Wright’s Black Boy, Desmond Morris’s The Naked Ape, and Go Ask Alice by Anonymous.
High school senior Steven Pico and others sued, stating that the Board’s action had denied them their rights under the First Amendment. The Supreme Court “remanded the dispute for further findings of fact.”
At that point, the school board voted to return the books but insisted that a student checking one of them out must bring home a parental warning.
But the New York attorney general determined that requirement violated the confidentiality of library records. Finally, the board voted—narrowly—to allow the books in the school libraries.
Raskin is a brilliant legal mind and the First Amendment is his forte, so his confidence in that ruling inspired me. Ah, I thought, perhaps there’s a First Amendment Supreme Court ruling that even the current Supreme Court would feel obligated to withhold.
But as I dug deeper, I found that the decision was 5-4, and there was no majority opinion.
Justice Brennan wrote that “nothing in our decision today affects in any way the discretion of a local school board to choose books to add to the libraries of their schools. Because we are concerned in this case with the suppression of ideas, our holding today affects only the discretion to remove books.”
Hmmm. So though I hope Congressman Raskin understands something about this case that I missed, I fear that once again we have to be concerned about what today’s Supreme Court would decide in such a case.
And once again we are reminded how important it is to elect local Board of Education members who are dedicated to the concept that the students they protect need to be exposed to many diverse ideas and individuals—and that the First Amendment remains a linchpin to our democracy.