Wednesday, December 14, 2022

Organized and influential, promoters and organizers of recent book bans seek influence over a lot more than books

Florida Freedom to Read Project members. The project opposes
restrictions on reading. (Photo by Todd Anderson, New York Times)
Rancorous conflicts over attempts to ban books in libraries are about a lot more than books, report Elizabeth A. Harris and Alexandra Alter of The New York Times

"Traditionally, debates over what books are appropriate for school libraries have taken place between a concerned parent and a librarian or administrator," they write. "But recently, the issue has been supercharged by a rapidly growing and increasingly influential constellation of conservative groups" that have "pursued their goals by becoming heavily involved in local and state politics. . . . They have created political action committees, funded campaigns, endorsed candidates and packed school boards, helping to fuel a surge in challenges to individual books and to drive changes in the rules governing what books are available to children."

The efforts seem to have have a social agenda. "The materials the groups object to are often described in policies and legislation as sensitive, inappropriate or pornographic," the Times reports. "In practice, the books most frequently targeted for removal have been by or about Black or LGBTQ people, according to the American Library Association."

The battle is limiting how librarians do their jobs. Florida has a list of "challenged books," which it distributes to school districts. Michelle Jarrett, the library media supervisor for the School District of Osceola County, told The Times, “This list could be seen as a warning, like ‘Don’t even bother with these books.' Librarians across the state are already self-censoring for fear of retribution, and asking themselves, ‘Am I ready to defend this book, is this worth the fight?’”

The Keller Independent School District in Dallas "banned books from its libraries that include the concept of gender fluidity. The change was pushed by three new school board members, elected in May with support from Patriot Mobile, a self-described Christian cellphone carrier. Through its political action committee, Patriot Mobile poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into Texas school board races to promote candidates with conservative views on race, gender and sexuality — including on which books children can access at school," the Times reports.

Keller parents who did not support the bans found themselves "outflanked by deep-pocketed organizations whose actions can change longstanding policies in a matter of months." Laney Hawes, who has four children in Keller schools, told the Times, “They ran on the campaign of, ‘We’re going to get pornography and sexually explicit books out of our school libraries.' The parents didn’t have a PAC. We couldn’t compete with these people.”

Organizing a national resistance to book bans is challenging, but pushback is happening. Emerson Sykes, a First Amendment litigator for the American Civil Liberties Union, told The Times, "The restrictions infringe on students’ right to access a broad range of material without political censorship.” Librarian groups have also been organizing resistance. The Times reports: "Librarians in Texas formed FReadom Fighters, an organization that offers guidance to librarians on handling book challenges. In Florida, parents who oppose book banning formed the Freedom to Read Project, which urges its members to attend board meetings and tracks the work of groups like Florida Citizens Alliance."

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