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ESSAY | Efforts to restrict explicit books in school libraries hit a judicial roadblock

Jefferee Woo / Tampa Bay Times via AP

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DURING A STOP AT VALLEY FORGE on Jan. 6, President Joe Biden kicked off a year of campaign speeches with a list of threats to American democracy. Counted among the offenders were “those who seek to bury history and ban books.”

“Did you ever think you’d be at a political event and talk about book banning, for a presidential election?” he asked.

Despite the president’s seeming amazement at having to address such a topic, voters should expect to hear a lot more about it as the presidential campaign heats up. During the last few years, parental groups concerned about the material in public school libraries and classrooms had the momentum, spurring lawmakers on to pass measures curtailing explicit material. But now, judges are weighing in, siding with progressive groups challenging those new protections.

Florida lawmakers kicked off the so-called book ban furor in July 2022 with H.B. 1467. It requires all school reading materials to be vetted by media specialists trained to evaluate critical race theory, explicit depictions of sex, or age-inappropriate discussions of gender identity or sexual orientation. An uproar ensued, and when Florida schools opened in the fall of 2022, some librarians posted pictures of empty shelves with the claim that all the books in the collection had to be restricted until they received official approval.

Never mind that some of those books contained material too shocking to be read during the public comment portion of local school board meetings. The state’s education commissioner, Manny Diaz, suggested some common sense might be in order. Florida’s H.B. 1069, passed in May 2023, includes one such commonsense guideline: “A district school board must also discontinue the use of any material the board does not allow a parent to read out loud.”

Since 2022, Texas, Missouri, Georgia, Utah, Tennessee, Virginia, Iowa, and Arkansas have either passed new legislation or amended existing laws to restrict, review, or remove controversial titles. West Virginia, Nebraska, South Carolina, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Utah are considering similar restrictions or guidelines.

But Newton’s third law of motion is still in effect. Actions promote equal and opposite reactions, and 2023 was notable for stays, injunctions, and blocks by federal and district courts.

For example, U.S. District Judge Timothy Brooks declared two provisions in Arkansas’ Act 372, signed by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders in March, too vague. One was an availability clause restricting age-inappropriate materials, the other a procedure allowing anyone, regardless of standing, to challenge a book. “By keeping the pivotal terms vague, local governing bodies have greater flexibility to assess a given challenge however they please rather than how the Constitution dictates,” Brooks wrote.

U.S. District Judge Stephen Locher made a similar complaint when blocking provisions in Iowa’s S.F. 496, finding the law “incredibly broad” with the underlying goal of casting “a puritanical ‘pall of orthodoxy’ over school libraries.”

Texas law H.B. 900 requires book vendors to rate books for sexual content before selling them to public schools. Schools must reject books labeled “sexually explicit,” while those deemed “sexually relevant” (though not explicit) would require parental permission for students to read. Plaintiffs in a high-profile lawsuit pointed to the rating standards as too vague and burdensome for booksellers, and Judge Alan D. Albright agreed, enjoining the entire law before it could take effect on Sept. 1, 2023. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Albright, upholding his decision on Jan. 17.

On the federal level, H.R. 5, the Parents Bill of Rights Act, requires transparency from school districts and state depart­ments of education, including “the right to a list of books and other reading materials contained in the library of their child’s school and the right to inspect those books and other reading materials.” The bill barely passed the House of Representatives in March 2023 and currently languishes in the Senate. Even if it’s eventually signed into law, libraries, booksellers, publishers, and authors are certain to file legal challenges.

A Banned Books Week display is featured at the Mott Haven branch of the New York Public Library in the Bronx.

A Banned Books Week display is featured at the Mott Haven branch of the New York Public Library in the Bronx. Ted Shaffrey/AP

AMID CLAIMS OF CENSORSHIP and free speech violations, it’s worth considering what the term book banning actually means in practice.

PEN America, a nonprofit dedicated to free expression, defines a 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, that leads to a previously accessible book being either completely removed from availability to students, or where access to a book is restricted or diminished.”

That’s a mouthful, but the final clause bears closer scrutiny. In many cases, books are counted as “restricted” simply because they’ve been moved from the middle school library to high school. But of the American Library Association’s “Most Challenged Books of 2022,” three of the top seven were originally published for adults and contain indisputably adult content.

Gender Queer: A Memoir tracks the author’s sexual identity journey in comic-book panels, some of which actually depict sex acts. Lawn Boy, a coming-of-age novel, describes the homosexual encounters of its protagonist. These found their way into school libraries after the American Library Association (ALA) included them on its annual Alex Award list: Ten books “written for adults that have special appeal for young adults ages 12-18.”

There’s a huge maturity gap between 12 and 18. But PEN America considers it a “ban” to reclassify such books as adult material, or to require parental permission to check them out. PEN’s report on the 2022-23 school year, titled “Banned in the USA,” shakes a rhetorical finger at outsiders venturing onto the educator’s turf: “It is important to recognize that books available in schools, whether in a school or classroom library, or as part of a curriculum, were selected by librarians and educators as part of the educational offerings to students. Book bans occur when those choices are overridden by school boards, administrators, teachers, or even politicians, on the basis of a particular book’s content.”

Three of the top seven books on the American Library Association’s ‘Most Challenged’ list were written for adults and contain indisputably adult content.

It should go without saying that books are generally banned on content, but PEN’s report doesn’t go into detail about what may have politicians so upset.

The report goes on to cite Texas as the national leader in “book bans,” having targeted over 800 unique titles for scrutiny. Florida is second, with 566 titles, then Tennessee with 345. Oklahoma, Michigan, Kansas, Wisconsin, Missouri, Idaho, Georgia, and Mississippi have restricted between 20 and 50 titles each. Even New York, hardly a conservative state, is concerned enough about 13 books to reevaluate their appropriateness for school-age readers.

It’s important to remember that many of these books, after review, have returned to library shelves. When the dust settles, the number of titles slated for permanent removal should be relatively few. American culture is not prone to book burning, and teens can still find just about anything they’re looking for in the public library or local Barnes & Noble.

Parental attitudes can be somewhat contradictory. A survey of parents conducted by Book Riot and the EveryLibrary Institute found the overwhelming majority of respondents appreciated school libraries and felt their children were safe to use them. At the same time, 60 percent favored restricting access and 57 percent wanted notification when their child checked out a controversial book.

The current flurry of legislation and counter lawsuits indicates the limits of the law when free expression is at issue. Community standards are easy to maintain when the community agrees, but in a culture as divided as ours, the burden of vigilance will increasingly fall to parents.

Fortunately, parents don’t have to focus entirely on the negative. This year’s winner of the Newbery Medal, awarded by the ALA for excellence in children’s literature, is The Eyes and the Impossible by Dave Eggers. It’s a fine novel with a noble theme of other-centeredness, as stated by a pivotal character: “If there are troubles in your mind, you should think first of the troubles of others; it is the essence of liberation.” Traditional publishers still offer excellent books for children, many by Christian authors. The trick is to find them.

Janie B. Cheaney

Janie is a senior writer who contributes commentary to WORLD and oversees WORLD’s annual Children’s Books of the Year awards. She also writes novels for young adults and authored the Wordsmith creative writing curriculum. Janie resides in rural Missouri.


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