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Rising book bans in US make school libraries political battlegrounds

Recent uptick in book bans, especially LGBTQ literature, turns school libraries into political battlegrounds.
Rising book bans in US make school libraries political battlegrounds
Posted at 5:58 PM, Sep 02, 2023

It's back-to-school season. But as a new semester approaches, school curriculums and libraries are battlegrounds for book bans across the country. 

The free speech advocacy group PEN America indexed bans between July 2021 and June 2022. The organization found that Texas had nearly double the number of bans compared to other states, with over 700. 

According to the American Library Association, 2022 saw the highest number of attempts to ban books since the organization began tracking in 2001. 

It was also a notable increase of 38% over 2021. 

LGBTQ-focused content is in the crosshairs. Seven of the top 13 challenged books included LGBTQ themes. 

"Stop pretending this is about protecting children from books. We all know this is about erasing our LGBTQ students and staff. It was literally written on signs people brought to the meeting on Monday," said a parent during a Dearborn City School District board meeting in Detroit. 

Those pushing for the removal of books often claim they are protecting children from what they see as an increasing tidal wave of inappropriate content for young minds. 

But book censorship battles are not new in the U.S.

SEE MORE: GA made it easier to challenge school library books. Almost no one has

For example, in modern times, the Jim Crow-era South was a hotbed of censorship attempts, many led by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, hoping to ban books without sympathetic views to the South's loss in the Civil War.

Book banning is also not limited to one ideological background.

Progressive movements and organizations have pushed to restrict the publishing of books by conservative figures like Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett.

In the wake of the decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, an open letter to publisher Penguin Random House wrote:

"Coney Barrett is free to say as she wishes, but Penguin Random House must decide whether to fund her position at the expense of human rights."

Books like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird have faced a number of ban attempts since their original publication because of language or potentially racist depictions.

More recently, a number of schools have dropped them from required reading lists after parents complained.

In 1982, the Supreme Court directly addressed the issue after students sued a New York school board for removing books by authors like Kurt Vonnegut and Langston Hughes; the board had allegedly decided the books were "anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic, and just plain filthy."

The court ruled the constitution does not permit an official suppression of ideas, and school boards "may not remove books from school libraries simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books."

SEE MORE: Teachers are 'nervous' and 'excited,' as new school year starts

Today, about 41% of the bans listed in the PEN America index are from directives by state officials and elected lawmakers.

That's an unusual shift; according to the organization's data, book removals were historically initiated by local community members.

Well-funded conservative groups like Moms for Liberty, Parents Defending Education, and No Left Turn on Education endorsed more than 500 school board candidates across the country in 2022.

According to reporting from The Milwaukee Journal, the founder of No Left Turn in Education has also provided free legal representation for parents who choose to challenge school districts.

In opposition, a number of progressive groups have also formed, like Freedom Fighters and the Freedom to Read Project, which urge members to attend school board meetings.

Organized political action committees have also entered the fray.

The PAC run by conservative cell phone company Patriot Mobile spent hundreds of thousands of dollars electing nearly a dozen school board candidates in Texas, some of whom have implemented policies making it easier to be elected even without a majority of votes.

The amount of funding and political organization speaks to how local school board battles have taken on national importance.

As Patriot Mobile's chief operating officer told the New York Times, "If [they] lose Tarrant County, [they] lose Texas. If [they] lose Texas, [they] lose the country."

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