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Book Bans by any other Name Smell like Censorship

Yellow "I read banned books" t-shirt

After a recent school board meeting, I was distracted by a Fairfax GOP-endorsed school board candidate yelling at me, when her friend joined in by yelling, “You don’t know what banned means!” as she vigorously pointed to the word “banned” on my brand new yellow t-shirt. Fortunately, her companion pulled her away while I stood there confused: what the heck was she talking about?

I’ve since learned that there is an extensive public relations campaign by far right groups and media to explain that the book bans we are worried about aren’t really book bans at all. Sounds crazy, right? One would think, but remember how well they were able to weaponize CRT to attack public schools and teachers?

Whether you call them book bans, censorship, or violation of the First Amendment, here is the truth:

  • Requests to ban books are at a record high in 2022.

  • The 2022-23 school year has been marked to date by an escalation of book bans and censorship in classrooms and school libraries across the United States. PEN America recorded more book bans during the fall 2022 semester than in each of the prior two semesters.

  • A large majority (70%!) of voters oppose book bans and have confidence in our libraries.

  • Some states are going further than book bans, for example Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed a bill into law that would have created potential criminal liability for librarians had it not been blocked by a federal judge, “as a violation of free speech rights under the first amendment to the US constitution.”

  • A website tied to Moms for Liberty is driving a substantial number of book banning efforts.

  • Book challenges have always focused on marginalized groups, like people of color and the LGBTQIA community, but this is a slippery slope where these challenges are chipping away at freedoms of all people, whether they be Jewish, Muslim, Black, Hispanic, lower income, and/or women.

  • Most school systems and libraries have processes to challenge books; however, current efforts to remove books from schools and libraries are making an end run around the rules and sometimes the law.

  • Book challenges are overwhelming the resources of smaller libraries and requiring substantial resources at larger libraries, thus using taxpayer dollars that could otherwise be spent on services and education.

Update on book bans in the 2022-2023 school year shows expanded censorship of themes centered on race, history, sexual orientation and gender. -PEN America Experts, Kasey Meehan and Jonathan Friedman, Ph.D.

We know that Virginia is not immune from book banning efforts. For example a small group of 53 people targeted Samuels Library in Front Royal, VA to drown the library in 800+ forms asking to have 134 books removed, most of which they hadn’t even read. When this was unsuccessful, they targeted the funding of this library despite Samuels Library being a critical resource in an impoverished rural community.

In Spotsylvania County, Virginia, two school board members said that explicit books should be burned and the school Superintendent pulled 14 books off of shelves. This same Superintendent added a loaded question to the ParentVue school portal requiring parents to answer whether they want their child “to have access to sexually explicit content in the school libraries.”

So maybe that angry lady yelling and pointing at me had a point. This isn’t JUST about book bans. In fact, I would say that this is about censorship, silencing marginalized people, an effort to rewrite history, and an attack on our democracy.

Although banned books week may have ended on October 7th, that doesn’t mean that our work is done. To make a difference, you can:

  • Advocate against censorship and share your concerns with your elected officials, school board, school, and local library.

  • Hold rallies in favor of the freedom to read or protest book removal.

  • Talk to neighbors and friends about the impact of banning books–70% of voters oppose all book bans and 87% of people do not support banning books that discuss race.

  • Ask questions and empathize with those who may not 100% agree with you.

  • Thank and support librarians and teachers.

  • Check out and read banned books from libraries.

  • Start a group (a Banned Book book club perhaps?) to talk about this and other concerns.

Or just wear a t-shirt. It may inspire others to anger or appreciation. Last week, I wore my Banned Book t-shirt to an education conference, and I found camaraderie among others wearing gorgeous banned book shirts, and admiration from even more wanting to know where I got my shirt.

If you are interested, I bought it at a store that rhymes with Schmamazon–the shirt comes in 6 different colors and a choice of a woman’s or man’s fit.


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