Over the last several years, right-wing groups across the U.S. have descended on school boards, city council meetings and political forums to demand the banning of books in public schools and libraries and the censorship of school curricula. The targets of this repressive campaign are books mostly dealing with the issues of race, gender and sexuality, focused mainly on LGBTQ themes. When it comes to the teaching of U.S. history, many of these same groups demand the censorship of curricula dealing with America’s slave era past, Jim Crow discriminatory laws, contemporary structural racism and inequality.
Pen America’s recent report titled, “Banned in the USA: The Growing Movement to Censor Books in Schools,” documents the more than 1,600 book titles across 32 states that have been banned from public schools during the 2021-2022 school year. At least 17 states have introduced bills containing gag orders or taken other steps that would restrict how teachers can discuss American history and current events, including pulling books off library shelves.
Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Jonathan Friedman, director of free expression and Education with PEN America. Here, he examines the movement working to impose book bans and censorship across the nation and Pen America’s work opposing this repressive campaign, while upholding the shared value of free speech and the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment.
JONATHAN FRIEDMAN: Since 2021, I’ve been tracking what I call the rise of educational censorship. And we have to distinguish that from the ways in which we talk about free speech in society, generally, in the arts, even on college campuses. When I talk about educational censorship, I’m talking really about formal acts of government, of state agents, of legislatures, of city councils, of school boards, even in some cases of superintendents, of principals and it’s that that is spreading everywhere.
It started a few years ago with proposals, these new laws that had come influenced by Donald Trump and influenced by a backlash toward the 1619 Project from the New York Times. And it just kind of grew and has become incredibly fluid. You have laws that are being proposed to censor K-12 schools, teachers, libraries and then also higher education college classrooms.
And, you know, while that, you know, in one stream has been spreading from state to state — some proposals becoming laws, others not. But nonetheless, feeding a kind of mania around this idea, you know, in red states and blue alike. We also saw the rise of book bans. And this is an unprecedented moment.
Never in the history of the United States have there been so many groups organizing. And this is what we mean when we talk about a movement, groups organizing on the ground, collaborating, using social media or in some cases, influencing also government officials to support the censorship of books. And it’s a movement that started in 2021, has just been more and more energy. And as we head into another legislative season and in the middle of another school year, book banning, you know, continues to gain steam.
SCOTT HARRIS: Well, Jonathan, I think it’s true to say that these groups across the country that are moving sometimes successfully to ban books and censor school curricula, they’ve gotten a fair amount of publicity in our corporate media. What’s not getting a lot of publicity — and I’d like you to fill us in on — are the organizations and grassroots clubs and parents groups that are pushing back, that are saying, No, we don’t want censorship in our schools for our children.
What is happening in terms of a pushback? If we only watch the media, it seems that these parents’ groups that want censorship are going into these school board meetings unopposed.
JONATHAN FRIEDMAN: Well, I think it’s very important that we remember that what these groups have done is galvanize citizens and that that is the kind of democratic way of responding to this and what’s necessary now. There are a ton of stories of students coming to school boards, of parents organizing around school board elections. There are national organizations like Pen America and other organizations that we work with in the anti-censorship or other parents’ groups that we’re working with around the country.
And I do think there is a certain amount of momentum behind our efforts. In February, we’re going to be partnering with Brooklyn Public Library to offer a series of workshops for teenagers around the country to learn how to fight book bans, to learn about their rights and how to organize, to stand up to book banning in their communities. And that’s an online free virtual program.
And there’s a lot of new efforts like that that are underway to connect efforts on the ground because there has been some success. And when people get together and raise their voice, that’s where we see success. The first year and a half of book bans in a lot of places —— this happened in the shadows, you know, where school administrators were under pressure from one very loud contingent, even if it was a minority to remove books. And they kind of caved into it, you know, in district after district.
But I do believe that it’s shining a light on what’s been happening and encouraging people to form a kind of countermovement against this has had some success. And I’m hopeful that, you know, unfortunately, as we see more repressive proposals on the table, we might come to see a stronger resolve to stand up against them.
Learn more about groups fighting the GOP culture war’s book banning and censorship campaign by visiting PEN America at pen.org.
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