The paper-thin line between protective safety measures and oppressive censorship legislation.


Maro Siranosian/TNS

This illustration photo taken in Los Angeles on Jan. 27, 2022, shows a person holding the graphic novel “Maus” by Art Spiegelman. A school board in Tennessee has added to a surge in book bans

Teal Davis, Staff Writer

  Rising criticism on both state and local levels surrounding literature in schools have fueled recent proposals for book bans surrounding possibly sensitive topics, leading to a far greater conversation concerning protection and censorship.

   In the fall of 2021, many American school districts faced a rise in criticism surrounding curriculum and books available in school libraries. Parents and politicians raised complaints surrounding curriculum and books accessible to primarily K-12 students in school libraries. Many of these complaints have come with calls for bans to be placed on numerous books within schools. The rise in complaints surrounding materials have been highly contained to specific districts and counties across the country,such as California, Texas, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Missouri and several other states. The American Civil Liberties Union revealed in a survey that reports from their Texas chapter, “make clear that the volume of challenges now hitting schools is unlike anything previously recorded in the state.” 

   These calls for book bans have sparked controversy due to the nature of the books being actively targeted, as well as the censorship which inevitably accompanies these bans. As lists of books have been presented, themes surrounding race and sexuality have been consistently targeted. However, many of the books being presented tackle difficult aspects of these themes and provide an educational approach to vital topics and provide children with a greater understanding of the world around them. 

   Books surrounding race and racial discrimination have been consistently targeted, supported with the argument that these themes may cause students to feel guilt surrounding their race or provide other students with racially discriminatory ideas. Race has always been a difficult topic for the U.S. and renowned books such as “To Kill A Mockingbird” by Harper Lee have often sat on the proverbial chopping block. Yet these new calls for book bans have targeted more modern literature including “This is Your Time” by Civil Rights advocate Ruby Bridges, which was deemed inappropriate for elementary and middle school students and “Maus” a graphic novel depicting the experiences of living in Nazi Germany. Other works which have come under scrutiny include books covering topics such as the 2020 Black Lives Matter Marches and arguments surrounding the current criminal justice system’s role in modern racism.

   However, simply because a book dares to grapple with the harsh realities of America’s history surrounding race, does not mean it should be deemed inappropriate in modern, American classrooms. While much of America’s history surrounding race has been one of violence, it is important that American schools teach history honestly and accurately. To do anything else would diminish and erase the very real violence and hostility which many individuals experienced in the not-so-distant past. 

   The controversy surrounding recent calls for book bans has found root in several Texan school districts, with current politicians supporting parental calls for censorship. Texas state Rep. Matt Krause released a list of 850 books which he believed should be removed from school district classrooms and libraries, nearly all of which discussed race and sexuality. The books varied from simply prominently featuring LGBTQ characters to some which had more explicit scenes of sex and sexuality. However, many believe that this representation and exposure is important for children who may grow up believing their sexuality is uncommon or wrong. Author, L.C. Rosen, whose book, “Jack of Hearts (and Other Parts)” was surprised to find out that his book, which features a sex advice column aimed to educate readers, was among the hundreds of books facing heavy criticism. All of the questions featured in the column were submitted by real students and the author partnered with sex education experts in order to try and provide education to young people that may be omitted from sex ed classes. While some parents or lawmakers may find the topics unsavory, offering accessibility to this kind of information allows for students to better equip and protect  themselves in real-world experiences. 

   The growing backlash and calls for bans have led numerous schools to ignore traditionally established guidelines regarding the removal of books in hopes of appeasing criticism. When schools remove a book from their libraries or ban the book in classrooms, there is a pre-established process, often including heavy review by a board. However, many schools which are facing heavy criticisms around certain books have begun to neglect these procedures. Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom at the American Library Association explained that “What we’re seeing these days is a short-circuiting of that process, despite the fact that school boards often do have these reconsideration policies on their own books…They’re ignoring them to respond to the controversy and the moral panics that they’re getting targeted with at school board meetings, and books are being abruptly removed.” Burbank school districts have also faced criticism for removing books immediately after receiving complaints, violating their own regulations which state that these books should remain on shelves while a challenge is pending and a full review can be conducted.

   As a growing number of schools have begun facing backlash for books and curriculum, several have begun taking a proactive approach to try and mitigate backlash. While The North East Independent School District in San Antonio, Texas, had not received any backlash or criticism surrounding its school library, reports from NBC News revealed “this past December librarians were instructed by school administrators to remove over 400 books.” This kind of “soft-censorship” or pre-removal of books is not uncommon, but is a detriment to accessible information. Simply because a district anticipated the possibility of a complaint surrounding a book, does not qualify them to remove literature without grounds. It is this kind of mass removal which will ultimately lead to detrimental levels of censorship and future issues surrounding accessible information. Because of these quiet removals, it is also nearly impossible to identify the actual scale of the censorship which is currently taking place in schools across the country. 

    Beyond the dangerous precedent that the current discussions surrounding bans may set, possible criminalization of the distribution of these books poses an entirely new threat to school staff. Politicians such as Gov. Greg Abbott have called for criminal charges against school counselors and staff who allow children access to books that are banned from school libraries. The implication of the possible criminalization of the distribution of books in this way is alarming.  School librarians have already begun to respond to the discussions of criminalizing distribution. These laws would add a significant risk to their daily jobs, even if they are not actively trying to distribute banned materials. 

   However, while accessibility to information is important to the freedom of ideas and open education, parents should still be able to have control over what their children learn. Whether the curriculum teaches aspects of morality that contradict with their beliefs or they believe that their child may not be ready or in a healthy place to learn about a specific subject, parents should have the power and responsibility to opt their children out of learning a specific lesson or reading certain books. It is a parent’s responsibility to bring up their children in a healthy and sensitive manner, and oftentimes parents know what’s best for their child specifically. However, individual parents can often opt their children out of assigned curriculum or forbid their children from reading specific books, while banning the book entirely prevents access to everyone. In order to allow parents more dialogue and insight into the educational materials, notices concerning possible sensitive books could pose minor solutions to this disconnect. Also, by engaging with their child and asking about the books that they are interested in checking out of school libraries, parents can have informed discussions with their children, at their own pace.

Ultimately, the issue surrounding recent book bans is multifaceted and discusses several different aspects of censorship and consequences, however the accessibility to resources which can provide an education and insightful approach to sensitive topics is vital to an honest presentation of America’s past and present. The discussions around these books often seem targeted at minority voices unnecessarily and tackle very specific issues, which are often underrepresented in standard media or curriculums. The disregard which some school districts have adopted also draws further concern surrounding the guidelines currently in place to protect unfounded censorship.