Banned in the USA: Rising school book bans threaten free expression and students’ first amendment rights PHOTO COURTESY OF PEN.ORG

Between July and December last year, 1,477 books were removed from library shelves, compared to 1,149 the previous six months, PEN America, which advocates for free speech and expression, especially in literature, recently reported. The censorship resulted not from spontaneous concern but from “organized efforts or because of new legislation.”

PEN America, which began tracking the issue in July 2021, found that, overall, more than 4,000 books have been banned, based on news reports, public records requests and publicly available data, The New York Times reported. But, The Times added, “The numbers don’t reflect the full scope of the efforts, since new mandates in some states requiring schools to vet all their reading material for potentially offensive content have led to mass removals of books, which PEN was unable to track, the report say.” The bans “are increasingly driven by organized efforts led by elected officials or activist groups whose actions can affect a whole district or state.”

In addition, 1,050 requests to ban books were made last year, a 70 percent increase over 619 in 2021, CNN reported, citing the American Library Association. “We are seeing less and less of what used to happen, which was [that] an individual parent would see their student reading a book and look at it and have questions about it and take it to a teacher or librarian to have a discussion. What we are seeing now is organized political advocacy groups go to school boards with an agenda with a long list of books they want banned because those books don’t fit their political, moral or religious agenda,” Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, told CNN.

A PEN America analysis of 66 school districts in 21 states showed that the censorship was not widespread as yet, centering in Texas, with 438 bans; Florida, 357; Missouri, 315; and Utah and South Carolina, 100 each. Also, the bans tended to be directed at the same titles, which, last year, included “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe, “Flamer” by Mike Curato, “Tricks” by Ellen Hopkins, a graphic novel edition of “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood and “Milk and Honey,” a poetry collection by Rupi Kaur.

But the campaign is very active and expanding. Seven states introduced 113 bills this year to ban certain books, limit children’s freedom to read or teachers’ ability to teach. They included, again, Florida, as well as Tennessee, Oklahoma and Utah, EveryLibrary, a political action committee for libraries, reported The Florida-based Moms for Liberty and Utah Parents United started the censorship campaign as an extension of their opposition to COVID -19 restrictions. “The rise of these networks meant that specific books — often titles that center on LGBTQ themes or that address racial inequality — were being targeted all over the country,” The Times said.

“The debate around what constitutes appropriate reading material for students also became increasingly politicized and vitriolic. Librarians and teachers have been accused of promoting pedophilia and some have lost their jobs or quit under pressure after refusing to remove books.”

This is not the first anti-books campaign in the U.S., as The Nation magazine recently pointed out, and the reasons have been eerily similar. The Espionage Act of 1917 empowered the postmaster general to block or censor some magazines and newspapers, including African American publications, to silence dissent over the U.S. involvement in World War I. It happened also in the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925 which centered on a ban against teaching evolution in schools, and in the burning of Beatles albums in the Deep South in 1966 by some Christians and members of the KKK after John Lennon said the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus.”

It happened also in the era of the John Birch Society, which anti-communist crusader and conspiracy theorist Robert Welch founded in 1958. It is featured in the book “Birchers: How the John Birch Society Radicalized the American Right” by Matthew Dallek, a political management professor at George Washington University, The Guardian noted..

While the Birchers were not the only ones promoting censorship in the 1960s, Dallek wrote, “they were likely the most visible group promoting book bans or promoting the policing of content in schools, libraries, movie theaters, even on newsstands.” They focused on “the so-called erosion of the moral fiber of the United States but also the struggle to rid the country of what they regarded as really the socialist left wing.”

In the society’s heyday, Dallek wrote, book bans and disrupting school board elections “gave Birchers a way to take action in their community … What’s frightening now is that I don’t recall a time where those efforts were so often successful. Moms for Liberty and the other successors to the John Birch Society, they’re having a lot more success at actually implementing their vision.”

That success includes disrupting classroom activities, creating uncertainty among teachers and causing consternation among authors.

“Now that many books about race, gender,and sexuality have been cleared from the shelves, the censors are casting an even wider net,” Young Adult (YA) author Dashika Slater, whose works have been banned, wrote in Mother Jones. She cited a PEN America finding that ”an increasing number of challenges target books about violence and abuse, health and wellbeing, and death and grief.”

While there is some pushback, Slater said, it “has been all too rare” and authors themselves have been forced to devote precious time defending their works against “the growing threat.” She added, “The censors will keep clearing the shelves until the people who believe in readers’ rights start packing hearing rooms, walking precincts in school board elections and registering their views with school district administrators.”

One problem, though, is that the censorship has expanded outside classrooms. The Miami-Dade County Public Schools recently voted 5-3 against recognizing October as “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer History Month,” The Miami Herald reported. Opponents insisted that endorsing the observance would violate state law, even though the board’s own attorney, Walter James Harvey, stated that it would not. Chairwoman Mari Tere Rojas, Vice Chairman Danny Espino, Roberto Alonso, Mary Blanco and Monica Colucci ignored the attorney’s advice, which was not surprising. Florida’s Gov. Ron DeSantis, architect of the state’s ban on teaching about LGBTQ, appointed Blanco and Espino to the board; Alonso and Colucci won their seats with his endorsement.

The public filled the School Board auditorium, with 100 attendees signing up to speak and another 75 waited outside. The board spent about 10 hours on the issue, while the vastly more important agenda item, the $7 billion schools budget, got about one hour “with little to no commentary from either the public or board members,” The Herald’s Sommer Brugal reported.

Attendees included members of Proud Boys, an organization deemed extremist in the U.S. and terrorist in Canada and New Zealand; its leaders were recently given lengthy prison sentences after being convicted of being leaders of the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Some wore shirts with the words “Shoot Your Local Pedophile.” Also present, of course, were members of Moms For Liberty.

In contrast, 63.5 miles to the north, Lake Worth Beach city commissioners unanimously passed a resolution declaring that their municipality “shall now and forever be considered a safe place, a sanctuary, a welcoming and supportive city for LGBTQ+ individuals and their families to live in peace and comfort,” The USA TODAY NETWORK reported.

Also. African Americans are keeping the pressure on the state over its ban on books and lessons dealing with slavery. About 100 demonstrators took part in a protest on August 16 in Miami, CNN reported.

These may be the small acts of resistance that YA author Slater wrote about but so long as the resistance remains, so long will opponents be reminding the powers-that-be that they are woke to the divisive agenda.