Two reports this week show the United States is facing an unprecedented wave of school book banning — spurring Congress to hold a hearing Thursday focused on the issue, which free-speech advocates warn will undermine democracy.
Also this week, the American Library Association published its annual report on book censorship, revealing that it had tracked 729 attempts to remove library, school and university materials in 2021, leading to 1,597 book challenges or removals. That is the highest number recorded since the association began tracking the phenomenon 20 years ago. For comparison, the association counted challenges or bans of 273 books in 2020, 377 in 2019 and 483 in 2018. Most titles targeted in 2021 were written by or about LGBTQ or Black individuals.
“Book challenges in American schools are nothing new, but this type of data has never been tallied, and quite frankly the results are shocking,” said Jonathan Friedman of PEN America, who was the lead author of the report. “What is happening in this country in terms of banning books in schools is unparalleled in its frequency, intensity and success. … This is an orchestrated attack on books whose subjects only recently gained a foothold on school library shelves and in classrooms.”
Both reports come as an ascendant conservative-led movement is scrutinizing and questioning almost every aspect of public education. Right-wing politicians, pundits and parents are objecting to how teachers discuss race, racism, history, gender and sexuality in schools, alleging that some curriculums — meant to be inclusive of a larger range of identities — amount to liberal indoctrination and even sexual “grooming.”
Republican legislators are also passing state-level legislation that restricts what teachers can say about race, sex and gender. Since January 2021, 15 states have enacted laws limiting how teachers can discuss issues such as racism and sexism, according to a PEN America analysis, while 175 similar “educational gag order bills” have been introduced in 40 states. Last month, Florida passed a law prohibiting teachers from discussing gender identity or sexuality in grades K-3.
At the district level, meanwhile, book bans are proliferating, as the two reports suggest and as The Washington Post previously reported. The Post reported that many book removals are taking place in secret, by administrators wary of controversy — a finding the PEN America report supports.
The report found that 98 percent of the more than 1,500 book bans it tracked took place when administrators acted covertly or outside of the normal processes schools have set up to handle book challenges. Schools typically maintain processes that require the formation of review committees to examine challenged books and decide, after weeks or months of study, whether they should remain on shelves or disappear.
“Most bans and restrictions have occurred without proper written forms, review committees, or transparency,” the report concludes. “While school boards and administrators do have some discretion over library and instructional materials, there are safeguards and best practices meant to protect students’ First Amendment rights that are being widely abrogated.”
Citing the American Library Association findings and news reports of banned books, the House Committee on Oversight and Reform held a hearing Thursday to examine what members called, in a statement, “the ongoing efforts across the country to ban books from schools and public libraries.”
The committee called witnesses including high school students in Pennsylvania and Washington; librarians, teachers and parents from Pennsylvania and Virginia; and Ruby Bridges, the civil rights activist and author. One of the most challenged books of the past year was the children’s book “Ruby Bridges Goes to School,” which chronicles Bridges’s experiences in 1960 as the first Black child to integrate a New Orleans school.
“My books are written to bring people together. Why would they be banned?” Bridges asked the committee. “When I share my experiences and my story in these books, I share our shared history, good, bad and ugly.”
Launching the panel Thursday morning, Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.) said that “basic intellectual freedoms are under attack.”
He added, “Everyone is offended by something, and that is why other people’s level of offense cannot be the metric” for deciding what is worth learning or reading.
The state that saw the most book bans, according to PEN America, was Texas, with 713. Pennsylvania was second with 456 book bans and Florida third with 204 bans.
The top three banned titles, according to PEN America, are “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe, “All Boys Aren’t Blue” by George M. Johnson and “Lawn Boy” by Jonathan Evison. “Gender Queer,” a graphic novel about being nonbinary, is banned in 30 districts; “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” a memoir about growing up Black and queer, is gone from 21 districts; and “Lawn Boy,” a young-adult novel that includes a description of a sexual encounter between two fourth-grade boys, has been yanked from 16 districts.
“The Bluest Eye,” by Nobel Prize laureate Toni Morrison, is the fifth most-banned book, having been pulled from 12 districts, per PEN America.
PEN America counted 42 children books that have been censored in the past nine months, including biographies of prominent people of color — not only Bridges but Martin Luther King Jr., Duke Ellington, Katherine Johnson, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Cesar Chavez, Sonia Sotomayor, Nelson Mandela and Malala Yousafzai.
In compiling its report, PEN America defined a school book ban “as any action taken against a book based on its content and as a result of parent or community challenges, administrative decisions, or in response to direct or threatened action by lawmakers or other governmental officials.”
In their testimony before Congress on Thursday, the three high-schoolers shared how books and book removals have shaped their lives so far.
Olivia Pituch, a senior from York County, Pa., who identifies as LGBTQ, said she would have “been able to embrace and love myself a lot earlier on” if she could have easily found books that featured people like her.
Christina Ellis, a high-schooler from the same county who is Black, said she spent much of her school career straightening her hair to avoid standing out and to prevent peers from touching her hair. She also refrained from bringing Caribbean food to lunch “to avoid snarky comments.” She said she wanted to testify before Congress to ensure that children who look like her do not suffer similar experiences.
“Banning books of those of minority backgrounds and unique backgrounds silences their voices and erases their history,” she said. “It’s not indoctrination, it’s education.”
Most other speakers also argued for the importance of access to a wide range of books.
Samantha Hull, a school librarian from Lancaster, Pa., said school librarians are fighting to keep books on the shelves across the country. She also challenged the argument, advanced by many on the right, that lessons and books about systemic racism and White supremacy should be curtailed because they make White children feel uncomfortable.
“Growth does not always occur when we are comfortable,” Hull said. “Without safe places to read, think and discuss, we have no future.”
One witness called by the committee minority, Jonathan Pidluzny of the conservative education group the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, argued that the country’s true censorship crisis is taking place on college campuses. He said that students are shouting down speakers whose views they disagree with and that liberals are “reporting young Republicans for every conceivable instance of wrong-think.”
This mirrored arguments advanced by Republican members of the committee during questioning, all of whom insisted the real problem is a culture of fear and censorship at the college level.
Near the end of his statement, Pidluzny said he realized the hearing was supposed to focus on K-12 issues. He said he had three points to make about K-12 censorship: First, that schools are funded by taxpayers, who should have the right to shape what children learn. Second, it is “the essence of representative democracy” for elected officials at the district and state levels to set school curriculums in response to constituents’ concerns. Third, the books available in schools must be age-appropriate; Pidluzny alleged that the books being challenged in K-12 settings “generally contain age-inappropriate sexual content.”
Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) said conservatives are facing attacks “every single day” for their beliefs.
Censorship on college campuses and “censorship on social media — that is far more dangerous I think than what we’re hearing from our witnesses today,” she said. “And I’ve experienced it myself,” she said, referring to an incident in summer 2021 when her house was spray-painted with profane insults.
At the hearing’s close, Raskin noted that it can be very easy to feel that one, or whatever group one identifies with, is being unfairly targeted and made a victim.
“I think that we’re going to advance the First Amendment values that all of us hold dear if all of us can step a little bit beyond our own sense of grievance and indignation,” he said. “As if we were the first group ever to be marginalized.”