The Attack against the Freedom to Read and What to Do about It

by Project Censored
Published: Last Updated on

By Steve Macek

During the past three years, the country has seen a dramatic increase in book bans at public and K-12 school libraries and in rightwing pro-censorship activism, usually targeting books that address race, gender identity, or sexuality.

In Texas, Suzette Baker was fired from her job as director of a rural public library for refusing to withdraw books about racial justice and the lives of LGBTQ people from circulation. A mob of neo-fascist Proud Boys descended on a Downers Grove, Illinois, school board meeting to demand that school libraries under the district’s control remove Gender Queer, Maia Kobabe’s graphic novel that explores non-binary gender identity.

In Florida, a member of Moms For Liberty, the group behind many recent book challenges, actually reported a school librarian to the police for distributing a popular young adult novel the Moms for Liberty activist claimed was “child pornography.”

Meanwhile, in Virginia, one woman, Jennifer Peterson, has filed challenges against some 71 books held by her school district’s school libraries on the grounds that they contain “sexually explicit” passages; Peterson has succeeded in getting 36 titles removed, including Toni Morrison’s classic Beloved and Andre Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name. And all over the country, school librarians have received death threats and school libraries have been shut down by bomb threats over books deemed objectionable by conservative fanatics.

According to PEN America’s September 2023 report, School Book Bans: The Mounting Pressure to Censor, during the 2022-23 school year there were 3,362 reported instances of book censorship in K-12 schools impacting 1,557 different titles.

As PEN America noted, this represents a 33 percent increase over the 2021-22 school year and a dramatic increase from the last time the organization issued a comprehensive report on school book bans in 2016. (The American Library Association, which also tracks challenges to books at public and school libraries, says that library book challenges this year have risen to the highest level since the organization began tracking them more than twenty years ago.)

Books that featured LGBTQ+ characters or themes related to gender identity or queer sexuality—including Fun Home, Gender Queer, All Boys Aren’t Blue, And Tango Makes Three, and I Am Jazz—were singled out as the target of some 36 percent of the book bans from 2021-2023 investigated by PEN America. Roughly 37 percent of the challenges targeted books that “discussed race and racism.”

The majority of these bans have occurred in Republican-controlled states—like Florida, Oklahoma, and Texas—which have passed laws that restrict teaching about race, gender, and sexuality or that empower parents to challenge school library books about such topics. This, in turn, has encouraged school districts to often preemptively purge their libraries of books and other materials that might be seen as controversial.

Indeed, PEN America reports that more than 40 percent of all book bans last year occurred in GOP-dominated Florida, with 1406 bans, followed by Texas with 625 and Missouri with 333.

Florida: A Gulag for Young Minds

Because Florida is by far the worst offender against K-12 students’ freedom to read, it is worth examining the legislation the state has adopted that facilitates this censorship. Although Florida governor Ron DeSantis dismisses news about book bans in his state as “a nasty hoax,” he has signed several pieces of legislation that directly contribute to censorship in his state.

In March 2022, DeSantis famously signed HB 1557, the Parental Rights in Education Act, popularly known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, that bans instruction about sexual orientation and gender from kindergarten through third grade. The Act requires that any teaching about these topics in older grades be “age appropriate” and in accordance with state standards.

It also specifies that any teacher found to have violated the Act will have their teaching license revoked. Confusion about whether this legislation applied to school libraries led districts across the state to purge books addressing sexual orientation or gender from their collections simply as a precaution.

Just one month later, DeSantis signed the Stop W.O.K.E. Act, HB 7, which among other things bans teaching in schools about what it calls “divisive concepts”—principally related to race and the history of race relations in the United States—that might make a student feel “guilt, anguish or any form of psychological distress” because of their race, gender, sex, or national origin. The law specifically bans the teaching of so-called “critical race theory.”

Tellingly, since HB 7 became law, one Florida school district banned a graphic novel, The Little Rock Nine, which details a well-known episode in the civil rights movement’s struggle against segregation, on the grounds that “its subject matter is ‘difficult for elementary school students to comprehend.’”

In July 2022, DeSantis signed HB 1467 into law. This legislation requires every elementary school in the state to “publish on its website, in a searchable format… a list of all materials maintained in the school library media center or required as part of a school or grade-level reading list.” It orders school librarians to  certify that books in their collections do not “contain pornography or material deemed harmful to minors” without spelling out clear standards for what exactly counts as “harmful to minors.”

It orders districts to develop a policy and a process for resolving any “objection by a parent or a resident of the county” to any library material and mandates that schools report all objections to the Department of Education. The law mandates that all meetings “convened for the purpose of ranking, eliminating, or selecting instructional materials for recommendation to the district school board must be noticed and open to the public,” and that “any committees convened for such purpose must include parents.”

Finally, just this past May, DeSantis ratified HB 1069, a law that makes it even easier to ban books in Florida schools. The law extends the prohibition on instruction about sexuality and gender established by HB 1557 to eighth grade. It would prevent students below the ninth grade from accessing any books through school libraries that contain “sexual conduct.”

It also modifies HB 1467 by specifying that “parents shall have the right to read [out loud] passages from any material that is subject to an objection” at a school board meeting and requires that if a school board denies someone the right to read a passage due to its indecent or inappropriate content, “the school district shall discontinue the use of the material.”

This recent law has many librarians, educators, and opponents of censorship particularly concerned. It could, conceivably, be used to ban from K-8 school libraries the works of William Shakespeare or Toni Morrison. The notion of “sexual conduct” as articulated in the law is so extremely vague and broad that commonly assigned middle school books like The Diary of Anne Frank could be prohibited under its auspices.

HB 1069 certainly has had an oppressive impact on the Sunshine State’s school librarians, forcing them to meticulously screen as many as a million books for any material that might be objectionable to a parent or resident.

Moms For Liberty

In Florida and elsewhere, ultraconservative “parent groups,” such as Moms for Liberty, have exploited these laws to force school boards and individual school administrators to remove hundreds of books that conservative censors frame as divisive or obscene. Founded in Florida in 2021 by a former school board member, Tina Descovich, Tiffany Justice, and Bridget Ziegler, wife of the Florida GOP chairman Christian Ziegler, the organization was originally formed to protest school and library mask mandates and other public health regulations affecting K-12 education during the COVID crisis.

Since then, the group has turned its focus to fighting inclusive curriculum and allegedly “inappropriate” library materials. They claim to have 285 chapters in 45 states and over 100,000 members. The Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled Moms for Liberty an extremist hate group and noted its many ties with fascist and white supremacist groups,  including the Proud Boys.

Moms for Liberty has been training its members to bombard school boards and administrations with complaints about lengthy lists of books. Unlike in the past, when most complaints fielded by schools concerned individual titles or series (such as the Harry Potter or Twilight series), today conservative activists turn up at meetings and demand that lists of a hundred or more titles be expunged.

In fact, according to the ALA, last year eleven states recorded complaints about a hundred or more titles, up from six in 2022 and zero in 2021. The explosion of mass challenges to school library books is best understood as a direct result of the rise of Moms for Liberty and other such groups.

Lawsuits, Anti-Book-Banning Laws, Book Sanctuaries, and Other Signs of Resistance

The good news is that defenders of intellectual freedom are fighting back.

Earlier this year PEN America, Penguin Random House, five authors of banned books, and two parents with children affected by school book bans in Florida’s Escambia County brought a federal lawsuit claiming that by removing several books from school libraries—including young adult books with LGBTQ characters, such as The Perks of Being a Wallflower—the country’s schools were attempting to ”prescribe an orthodoxy of opinion that violates the First Amendment and Fourteenth Amendments.”

In Lake County, Florida, the authors of And Tango Makes Three, a children’s book about two male penguins who adopt and raise a chick, brought a suit contesting the county school board’s ban on the book for kindergarten through third-grade students, charging that the board’s actions were unconstitutional viewpoint and content discrimination.

Beyond these isolated legal actions, state legislatures across the country have begun passing laws designed to make the sort of mass book challenges promoted by Moms for Liberty impossible. Illinois has led the way with a law signed in June by Governor J. B. Pritzker that withholds funding for any public library that restricts or bans materials for “partisan or doctrinal” reasons.

It also mandates that Illinois public libraries adhere to the American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights, which requires that they “challenge censorship” and resist the exclusion of materials because of the “origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation.” In September, California followed suit, with a law that imposes fines on schools that “block textbooks and school library books for discriminatory reasons.”

Libraries and librarians are resisting the right’s current clampdown on the right to read. In September 2022, the Chicago Public Library system declared itself a “book sanctuary” to make heavily censored books available to the public at all 81 of their branch libraries. There are now similar sanctuary libraries across the country, including in “red” states such as Florida, Texas, Virginia, and Ohio.

Educators and teachers unions have staged mass rallies to protest book bans in states like Florida. Civic groups have also battled book bans in often creative ways. For instance, in the summer of 2023, progressive activist group MoveOn launched a “banned bookmobile” that visited states across the South and the Midwest where bans have been enacted or attempted, distributing copies of some of the most frequently challenged books.

In July 2023, the Digital Public Library of America launched the Banned Book Club, an app that allows users to freely access books that have been banned in their area. In November 2023, the popular singer Pink distributed thousands of banned or challenged books at concerts she performed in Miami and Sunrise, Florida.

But perhaps the most inspiring sign of resistance to the assault on young people’s right to read has been the activism of young people themselves. Students are taking the lead in organizing against restrictions on books about race, the LGBTQ+ community, and other subjects abhorred by conservatives.

In Texas, for example, Da’Taeveyon Daniels and other high school students led the battle against censorship of school books as part of a new organization Students Engaged in Advancing Texas (SEAT). (For more on teens’ role in the battle against censorship, see Da’Taeveyon Daniels’s Project Censored Dispatch, The Rising Political Battle over Censorship). Across the country, students have formed “banned book” reading groups in one high school after another.

The efforts of groups like SEAT, the ALA, PEN America, and other champions of intellectual freedom like the National Coalition Against Censorship and the American Civil Liberties Union deserve our support. The culture warriors of the right know that their toxic strain of hate-filled politics thrives on ignorance, bigotry, and cultural chauvinism.

To defeat them, we should do all we can to promote critical thinking, deep cross-cultural knowledge, and tolerance that is best cultivated through the reading of exactly the sorts of books they seek to suppress.

Steve Macek is a Professor of Communication at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois, and co-coordinator of Project Censored’s Campus Affiliates Program.  He is also a contributor to Project Censored’s State of the Free Press 2024.