Imagine a child in an elementary school entering the school library — only to find almost nothing left on the shelves. This is actually starting to happen today in parts of America.
The FFRF Action Fund continues to monitor and counter the onslaught of campaigns by white Christian nationalists to ban books and censor educational materials. At a time when we should be celebrating libraries and librarians (April 23-29 was National Library Week) and public school teachers (Teacher Appreciation Week is May 8-12), zealous lawmakers and advocacy groups continue to handcuff these community leaders through audacious book purges.
Ironically, these renewed calls for book bans come just as there is a renaissance for Judy Blume, the much-banned author of young adult books. A new documentary and the just-released feature film of her 1970 book Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret are calling attention to the resurgence of book bans in our public schools and libraries, and the importance of challenging them. Are You There God? was banned for frankly and sympathetically writing about young girls getting their menstrual periods. As Blume recently pointed out in an interview, draconian legislation has been introduced in Florida to basically ban girls from even discussing their periods.
“It’s worse than the ’80s,” she said recently, “because of the way it’s coming from government.”
PEN America reports over 1,400 book bans, affecting 874 unique titles, that have been either implemented or introduced so far during the 2022-2023 school year. According to PEN America’s updated report, 74 percent are the result of organized efforts of advocacy groups, elected officials and/or enacted legislation. A group called Moms for Liberty is connected to 58 percent of all advocacy-led book bans around the country. PEN America says there is an expanded censorship of themes centered on race, history, sexual orientation and gender.
Book bans are concentrated so far this school year in Texas, Florida, Missouri, Utah and South Carolina, with newly enacted laws in Florida, Missouri and Utah behind much of the censorship. The good news is that more than 70 percent of parents oppose book banning. But crafty new legislation seeks to get around this by handing a “heckler’s veto” to any parent or member of the community who objects to curricula or school library books. Legislation is being proposed or passing that automatically removes any targeted book from the shelves pending a review that requires a foregone conclusion that the book will not pass muster. PEN reports that rhetoric about “porn in schools” is increasingly being heard.
FFRF recently highlighted a number of so-called “parental bills of rights” bills being introduced and passed. Unfortunately, since then, more states have attempted to allow a small minority of extremists — and Christian nationalist lawmakers — to dictate which books may be allowed on the shelves of libraries across the country. Some are penalizing librarians and public school staff who do not remove these books within a subjective “timely manner.”
The New York Times reports that in Florida, which passed three state laws last year targeting reading or educational materials, a substitute teacher in Jacksonville was fired for posting a video of empty library shelves at the middle school where he was teaching. In Duval County, the school district tasked 54 media specialists with reviewing more than 1.6 million titles. Any unapproved books had to be set aside or covered, and as of early April only about 25,000 books had been cleared. Despite such purges. Gov. Ron DeSantis held a press conference in March standing behind a sign reading “Expose the Book Ban HOAX.” He claims that the state is merely trying to protect children from pornography. Democracy Forward has filed suit against the state on behalf of the Florida Education Association.
Perhaps the most ironic bill in the latest censorship drive is Iowa Senate Bill 496, which requires that only “age-appropriate materials” be left on the shelves of school libraries. This leaves the door wide open for the book banners to make their demands. The real kicker is that the bill does not remove a statutory provision that requires religious materials to be made available in public schools. So as part of an effort to censor materials that may be considered “harmful” to young students, lawmakers in Iowa are attempting to ensure that the X-rated horrors of the bible are available for any child to read. At least one parent in Utah understands the hypocrisy. FFRF is backing up his request that bibles be treated just like the other books in his district that are being banned for “inappropriate” or sexual content.
Lawmakers in states like Oklahoma have continued their Christian nationalist crusade by attempting to ban books that the public can deem inappropriate for children. A failed bill in Utah sought to encourage a heckler’s veto by parents seeking to censor book access. Lawmakers in Indiana attempted to sneak in an amendment to an innocuous education bill that would have allowed any resident of a school district to review the school curriculum to determine what can be taught in their public schools. The problem is not unique to state-level governance: A city council member in Greenville, S.C., proposed to strip the shelves of books he believed “promote sexuality.” In actuality, the books included mild discussion of homosexuality — a topic that some religious bigots simply cannot tolerate.
As Isaac Asimov put it, “Any book worth banning is a book worth reading.” FFRF Action Fund thanks free-speech advocates for speaking out against this censorship and protecting the right of a child or student to read freely — without governmental or religious interference.
FFRF Action Fund is a 501(c)(4) organization that develops and advocates for legislation, regulations and government programs to preserve the constitutional principle of separation between state and church. It also advocates for the rights and views of nonbelievers, endorses candidates for political office, and publicizes the views of elected officials concerning religious liberty issues.