We’re Back to Banning Books

Terry H. Schwadron

Oct. 11, 2021

Somewhere amid the current outbreak of parental fears over covid vaccine mandates, misguided attacks on “critical race theory” being taught in elementary schools, and the fistfights and yelling at school boards, we’re seeing a renewed attempt to ban textbooks.

It’s not that parental challenges to textbooks are new, but the intensity is, finally this week prompting the Department of Justice into seeking ways to address a “spike in harassment, intimidation and threats of violence” against school boards, administrators and staff, against teachers, administrators and school board members in heated conflicts over covid safety policies and curriculum content.

That, in turn, has Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and leading Republicans attacking the Justice Department and offering to defend parental rights to decide that curriculum match their community values, even if it means banning books.

Titles like The Catcher in the Rye, A Brave New World, Lolita, and Lady Chatterley’s Lover are among the classics barred from schools or libraries over time. Now there has been a shift. The American Library Association’s Top Ten Most Challenged Books of 2020 showed that the books challenged the most concern “racism, Black American history and diversity in the United States.”

A report by the National School Boards Association (NSBA) found that challenges of school materials are now common throughout the United States. Nearly a third of those challenges have resulted in materials being withdrawn from schools or their use curtailed.

Covid has unleashed the culture wars anew.

There’s such a thing now as Banned Books Week, during which Americans who believe in exposure to ideas are exhorted to fight against banning and censorship.

Parents who want to control books in public education and who cannot distinguish between exposure and force-feeding objectionable information ought to seriously consider home schooling, parochial schools and turning off all television, radio and social media, limiting contact outside the home. That works for covid contact as well, of course.

Sex and Race

Talk of sex in books or school assignments remains a target. During 2018 and 2019, parents challenged school boards mostly about books with LBGTQ themes.

This year, in Hudson, Ohio, conservative parents told the school board members that if they didn’t drop the use of 642 Things to Write About, a book of writing prompts distributed to some Hudson high school students in a college-level course that required a parental permission slip, the parent wanted them to resign or he would seek to prosecute them for child pornography charges. Prompts like “Write a sex scene you wouldn’t show your mom” merited the child porn charges, one parent explained.

No school board members resigned, but video of the confrontation went viral on right-wing social media. Last month, hundreds of attendees gave the embattled school board members a standing ovation to show support in the face of the threats.

In Wyoming’s conservative Campbell County, prosecutors are weighing charges against librarians because of a criminal complaint over sex education and LGBT-related books shelved in sections for children or young adults, the Associated Press reported,

The challenged books, which include a children’s book called How Do You Make a Baby? and a book aimed at teenagers called Dating and Sex: A Guide for the 21st Century Teen Boy, prompted a complaint to a local sheriff’s department.

School and public libraries already have formal procedures for members of the public to raise concerns about whether a book is inappropriate, according to Deborah Caldwell-Stone, the head of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom.

“This idea that a library should function only to cater to the preferences of one contingent in society is of course anathema to the whole notion of a public library,” commented a PEN America spokesman.

The new waves of outrage over certain books appear to be driven by social media, which, naturally, can make mistakes even in targeting certain titles. There was a recent report of parents in one town banning a book with a title similar to a targeted textbook.

Targeting Ideas and Covid

In Pennsylvania, a school board tried to drop books by Nikole Hannah-Jones and Malala Yousafzai only to prompt a student protest reversing the decision. In Texas, a school district pulled six books including The Handmaid’s Tale: The Graphic Novel by Margaret Atwood and Renee Nault. In Tennessee, a local chapter of Moms For Liberty (MFL) deemed a number of books as inappropriate for second graders, including Martin Luther King, Jr and the March on Washington and the picture book Ruby Bridges Goes to School, about the six year old who became the first African American to integrate an all-white school in New Orleans. In Virginia Beach, a school bord member wants to ban books by Toni Morrison as “pornographic.”

A good chunk of American parents apparently want only their own home values to be the basis of public education.

According to Chalkbeat, over the last several months, officials nationwide have been pressured to enact new laws and policies meant to shape how students discuss the nation’s past — and its present. Many have specifically rejected “critical race theory,” the academic framework that examines how policies and the law perpetuate systemic racism, insisting on teaching that seeks to restrict specific kinds of anti-racism training or the teaching of “divisive” concepts.

Still, it seems to be confrontations over covid safety policies, such as mask mandates and vaccination guidelines, that are erupting into violent or threatening clashes at schools across the country. Assaults have become the stuff of widely distributed social media posts.

Television news carried video of police summoned to an Arizona school after three men, one with zip ties, barged into a principal’s office and threatened her with a citizen’s arrest because she was enforcing covid protocols.

While “spirited debate about policy matters is protected under our Constitution, that protection does not extend to threats of violence or intimidation,” U.S. Atty. Gen. Merrick Garland said this week, prompting the defense of parental values by DeSantis and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.

Just what the Justice Department will do with a special task force to deal with school board violence is unclear. But it is doubtful that anyone is going to stop the banning of books in pursuit of perceived religious or cultural purity.