Free People Read Freely

Growing resistance to book banning signals diminished public support for censorship.

by Kate Horgan
Published: Updated:

By Nancy Kranich

People have challenged books for centuries. But following the pandemic, newly formed parents groups such as Moms for Liberty grew to include more than 200 local chapters, which shifted their attention from opposing mask mandates and school closures to restricting reading materials in public schools and libraries. The American Library Association (ALA) documented a few hundred book challenges annually prior to the pandemic. Suddenly, in 2021, those numbers swelled from around 200 challenged titles per year to nearly 2,000, then more than 2,500 in 2022, and 4,240 in 2023.

Contributing to those skyrocketing numbers, 89 percent of the challenges in 2023 targeted multiple titles, compared to only 5 percent in 2019. At one library in Florida, as many as 600 books were challenged. Many of the targeted books focus on LGBTQIA+ themes, including Gender Queer by Maia Kebab, which the ALA recognized with its Alex Award; This Book is Gay by Juno Dawson, winner of the 2018 Garden State Teen Book Award; and All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson, a Young Adult Library Services Association “Teens Top 10” selection for 2021.

Source: Office for Intellectual Freedom, “Number of Unique Titles Challenged in the U.S. by Year,” American Library Association, March 14, 2024.

Though their ideology has proven unpopular in many communities, small sects of these parents’ rights activists continue to exert influence on school boards and government officials in efforts to police content in school and public libraries. People connected to Moms for Liberty have now compiled a database of targeted books called BookLooks, offering ratings of “objectionable” content without any context, synopses, professional reviews, or acknowledgment of the awards these titles have received. Nevertheless, would-be censors often cite the website and encourage school districts to incorporate its recommendations into their book considerations.

At the urging of groups like Moms for Liberty, five states have passed, and many more have considered, some 150 laws that supercharge book suppression in schools and libraries. These policies give parents more power over selection by threatening teachers and librarians with fines and imprisonment for providing what parents (not the courts) consider “obscene” or “harmful material” to minors. Some states require libraries to review not only challenged books but all titles in their collections.

In February, the Georgia senate passed a bill prohibiting public funds from supporting participation and membership in the ALA, the professional organization that fights book bans. If enacted, the law would also remove the standard requirement that professional librarians have an ALA-accredited master’s degree. Alabama recently joined Montana and several other states in dropping the state library’s membership while leaving it to local library boards to determine their level of support, including reimbursement for staff attendance at ALA meetings. Moreover, added pressure from states censoring library materials and punishing librarians has resulted in an alarming number of threats directed at library workers and calls to close or defund libraries. Up to a third of school librarians have considered leaving the profession, while others have self-censored due to the chilling effect of widespread attacks. Nevertheless, many remain armed for action, more determined than ever to fight censorship.

Pushing Back against Censorship

The good news is that the public dislikes censorship and has waged winning counter-campaigns across the country. While some red states have criminalized librarians for defending certain titles, blue states like New Jersey and California have fought to support First Amendment rights in their legislatures and local communities. These steps by lawmakers come after the recent passage of groundbreaking anti-book ban legislation in Illinois and Maryland, prohibiting libraries from excluding materials because of authors’ origin, background, or views. In New Jersey, conservatives and parental rights groups refer to the pending Freedom to Read Act as the “Freedom to Groom Act.”

According to a Rutgers Eagleton Institute poll, more than half of New Jersey residents believe politicians drive book banning and censorship measures to advance their political careers rather than in response to parental concerns. Rutgers Today noted that 58 percent of residents were more concerned that schools might censor educationally important books and topics. “When we assess views in a scientific and representative way, public opinion on this issue shows … that the loudest voices do not necessarily represent the majority,” Ashley Koning, director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling at Rutgers University, told Rutgers Today.

The Rutgers Eagleton poll reflects national surveys that also indicate high levels of public trust for librarians. More than 90 percent of “parents, grandparents, and guardians trust librarians to curate appropriate books and materials, and this trust extends to their recommendations for their children,” according to a November 2023 survey by the EveryLibrary Institute, a nonprofit that supports library funding in the United States.

Across the nation, local residents have waged successful campaigns to resist censorship, with students, authors, and librarians fighting back in creative and powerful ways. For example, students in York, Pennsylvania, led fights to overturn school boards sanctioning censorship. Freedom to read advocates have run and secured school board appointments. Hundreds rallied on behalf of Martha Hickson, New Jersey’s 2023 Librarian of the Year, after she was targeted by a small but vocal group of parents over award-winning books such as Kebab’s Gender Queer and Jonathan Evison’s Lawn Boy. Those teens denied access to titles in their own schools have borrowed them electronically through the Brooklyn Public Library’s Books Unbanned initiative, now joined by other major libraries nationwide.

Recognizing that libraries cannot beat book bans alone, ALA formed Unite Against Book Bans (UBB), a broad coalition of publishers, authors, parents, and other advocacy groups that guides supporters to “let freedom read.” UBB recently added “Book Résumés” to its growing list of resources as a one-stop source for background about challenged titles. Joining the ALA and its Freedom to Read Foundation, PEN America, EveryLibrary, and the National Coalition Against Censorship have documented developments and offered local mobilization and legal support.

Nationally, new advocacy groups have formed, including Book Ban Busters, Grandparents for Truth, and Moms for Libros, bolstering the work of local groups such as the North Hunterdon-Voorhees Intellectual Freedom Fighters in New Jersey, the Galveston County Library Alliance in Texas, and both the Louisiana Citizens Against Censorship and the St. Tammany Library Alliance in Louisiana.

On the legal front, citizens from Llano County, Texas, obtained a preliminary injunction ordering the return of some sixty books to the public library’s shelves. In Arkansas, a judge prohibited enforcement of a book ban law likely to infringe on First and Fourteenth Amendment rights, declaring, “[T]he public library is not to be mistaken for simply an arm of the state. By virtue of its mission to provide the citizenry with access to a wide array of information, viewpoints, and content, the public library is decidedly not the state’s creature; it is the people’s.” Citizens in Florida, California, Iowa, and elsewhere have brought similar lawsuits that are now pending in the courts.

The Chicago Public Library initiated a nationwide campaign to declare libraries and their communities Book Sanctuaries to keep books safe. In New Jersey, the Hoboken Library has led a similar campaign, with more than twenty other New Jersey libraries joining it. In a state that named a service area on the Garden State Parkway after its most challenged author, Judy Blume, library champions now stand with the banned.

Fighting for the First

Growing resistance to book banning signals diminished public support for censorship. Nevertheless, challenges continue to grow as communities favoring censors fire librarians from their jobs and defund their libraries. Nevertheless, librarians who build diverse, inclusive collections that open the eyes and minds of young people continue to agonize when critics call them pedophiles and pornographers and harass and intimidate them with doxing, trolling, threats, and cyberbullying.

With dramatic drops in reading scores following the pandemic, especially for low-performing students, young people depend more than ever on the guidance of librarians and teachers to help them read the very titles targeted by censors. These books offer young people lifelines by exploring racial, ethnic, and gender identities, race and racism, sexuality, and sexual violence, as articulated by Da’Taeveyon Daniels during Banned Books Week 2023. “For me and my peers,” Daniels wrote, “books are not just stories; they are lifelines. Literature provides us with solace, understanding, and a sense of belonging to a world where our voices matter. When narratives that represent the experiences of underprivileged and underrepresented communities are silenced, the message is clear: your experiences and identity are not valid, and your voice does not matter.”

The First Amendment safeguards free expression, including the right to receive information. Yet the freedom to read remains fragile, vulnerable to damage every time challengers succeed in removing books from libraries and schools. As conservative politicians pass restrictive legislation in service of small but vociferous groups of parental rights advocates, we need an army to join forces and fight back. Only with a broad coalition of advocates can we ensure that free people, including young people, continue to read freely.