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“If this nation is to be wise as well as strong, if we are to achieve our destiny, then we need more new ideas for more wise men reading more good books in more public libraries. These libraries should be open to all – except the censor. We must know all the facts and hear all the alternatives and listen to all the criticisms. Let us welcome controversial books and controversial authors.”
President John F Kennedy
Efforts to ban books and to censor what is taught in public schools have increased dramatically in the last two years. Since 2021, a handful of right-wing organizations have been pressuring school districts and public libraries to ban books about, and authored by, LGBTQ people and people of color.
This is part of a larger effort by Republicans to restrict classroom content dealing with race, racism, ethnic history, sex education, gender identity and sexual orientation. PEN America (an advocacy group for free speech and expression) and the American Library Association (ALA) both report there has been a huge increase in the number of books being banned.
During the 2021-22 school year, 140 school districts in 32 states banned more than 2,500 books. Public libraries are also being targeted. The lists of targeted books include young adults books, children's picture books and adult fiction and non-fiction. National Public Radio reported in February 022 that “35 states have introduced 137 bills limiting what schools can teach about race, American history, sexual orientation and gender identity.”
Minnesota and Wisconsin are not immune to this trend. Even the tiny library in Iron River, Wis., is under attack from the would-be censors. Republican politicians are driving the attacks on school curricula and the accurate teaching of history, biology, and human sexuality.
For conservative Republicans education exists for job training and the indoctrination of youth. School is not for producing knowledgeable, informed critical thinkers who might challenge the status quo. It is for producing compliant workers with sufficient math, reading and technical skills to function in the workplace. It is clear from the actions of conservatives that they do not care about children. They have consistently and frequently opposed or cut funding for schools, health care, nutrition programs, preschool, child labor laws and child care programs.
Their concerns for protecting children from books and certain educational topics is pure hypocrisy. Banning books is a quintessential characteristic of despotism. It is a primary control tactic of fascists, totalitarian regimes and religious zealots. To dominate and control people you have to control their information sources, education, thinking and beliefs. Allowing people to “know all the facts and hear all the alternatives and listen to all the criticisms” is dangerous to the oligarchs in any society. Our society is no different.
Many times in the past writing, speakin, or teaching about unpopular subjects, different ideas or the faults of the powerful was dangerous to one's freedom or career. Formal and informal censorship limited understanding and public discussion of history, foreign policy, militarism, evolution, economics, racism and alternatives to the current economic and political system.
Now in the name of “religious freedom,” “protecting children” or “age-appropriate” instruction the right wing zealots are attacking everyone's freedom to read and receive an accurate, quality education. Schools and libraries have become the latest “wedge issue” in the battle for political power. The efforts to ban books are not driven by parental concern for what their children are bringing home from school. Rather, a growing number of right-wing organizations are driving the increase in book banning. Prior to 2021, the majority of challenges to library resources sought to remove a single book.
Today 90% of the book banning requests involve multiple titles. Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, says, “The record number of book challenges we’re reporting today are not the result of a parent filing authentic requests for reconsideration.
Overwhelmingly, we’re seeing groups and individuals at library board meetings demand the removal of long lists of books obtained from organized censorship groups who share these lists on social media." Many of the books targeted for banning have been called obscene or pornographic.
This is an unsupported allegation. Just because some prude is offended doesn't make a book obscene. The legal test for obscenity involves a multi-faceted evaluation of the subject, content, purpose, audience and literary value of the book. It is highly unlikely – if not patently absurd – that school librarians would select obscene materials for their libraries.
According to the Pew Research Center, only half (48%) of our population visited a library in the past year, One third (32%) have used a library but not in the last year. About 20% have never visited a library. Note that the last two numbers are similar to the 21% of adults who are functionally illiterate and the 54% of adults that are below a sixth-grade reading level. Clearly, as a nation, we are not “all above average.”
We should heed the words of John Kennedy. It should be noted that students retain their First Amendment rights in schools. In 1969, the Supreme Court ruled that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate” (Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District). In 1982 the Court said the “special characteristics” of the school library, making it “especially appropriate for the recognition of the First Amendment rights of students,” including the right to access information and ideas (Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District v. Pico).
There is a simple solution to this controversy. When you don't like and don't want your children to watch what is on TV or on the Internet, you turn it off. If you don't like or want your child reading a book, don't check it out. You do not have the right to impose your preferences on other people. Banning books and educational content based on your opinion, preferences or religious beliefs is simply wrong and antithetical to liberty.
Deborah Caldwell-Stone sums up the issue, “These attacks on our freedom to read should trouble every person who values liberty and our constitutional rights. To allow a group of people or any individual, no matter how powerful or loud, to become the decision-maker about what books we can read or whether libraries exist, is to place all of our rights and liberties in jeopardy.”