Front Page Talking Points

FOR THE WEEK OF AUG. 29, 2022

Edgy books in schools prompt discussions of parents’ rights, education and 'censorship'

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As the school year starts, book-banning efforts continue around the U.S. They've spread from scattered battles to a broader push aimed at works in classrooms, school libraries and public libraries' youth sections about racial issues, sexual identity and other touchy topics. Even an illustrated edition of a 1947 classic, "The Diary of Anne Frank," recently was removed from libraries in Keller, Texas, near Fort Worth.

"We've seen this going from a school or community issue to a really polarizing political issue," says journalist Alexandra Alter, who covers publishing for The New York Times. "Before, parents might hear about a book because their child brought a copy home; now, complaints on social media about inappropriate material go viral."

In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott told education officials to develop statewide standards preventing "pornography" and "other obscene content in Texas public schools." Another Republican governor, Ron DeSantis of Florida, last spring signed a bill giving parents a say in what books can and can't be in school libraries. All elementary schools now must provide a searchable list of every book available in libraries or used in instruction. School boards must let the public know when they plan to consider approving new books and let anyone comment.

These are among fresh examples of what's going on:

  • Collier County public schools in southwest Florida put an "unsuitable for students" parental advisory sticker on 110 books — including the literary classics "Beloved" by Toni Morrison and "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" by Maya Angelou.
  • In Utah's largest school district, officials yanked more than 50 books from library shelves recently after parents complained they were unsuitable.
  • In Doylestown, Pa., the state's third-largest district is setting up a panel of adults to review every book school librarians propose buying.
  • Parents of students in a Nebraska system now must sign permission slips for library books.
  • A resident's complaint in Llano, Texas about books on sexuality, gender and race in the public library's section for young readers prompted a purge of volumes. Officials fired a librarian who objected.
  • Another Texas district will divide its library into "juvenile," "young adult" and "adult" sections, with parents choosing the level their child can access.

Deborah Caldwell-Stone of the American Library Association, says she has never seen such a strong, successful movement to limit the ability to read. "This shows an inability to respect the rights of individual students, particularly older students," she adds. "It's . . . teaching lessons in censorship." Suzanne Nossel, the head of a nonprofit group called PEN America, calls the developments "a systematic effort to wage the political war and the culture war by using our schools and libraries as a battleground." The chief executive of Penguin Random House, a major publisher, early this year gave a $500,000 personal donation to the New York organization to help it combat book bans.

Governor says: "Unfortunately, we've seen some books in some of these libraries, I mean you're talking about kids in middle school, some of the stuff that has ended up there is incredibly, incredibly disturbing stuff." -- Ron DeSantis of Florida

Law professor says: "Even though the government has discretion to control what’s taught in school, the First Amendment ensures the right of free speech to those who want to protest what's happening in schools." – Erica Goldberg, associate professor of law at the University of Dayton (Ohio)

Free speech advocate says: "This is a matter of pressing national concern. … People need to mobilize, because the efforts to ban books are very active and very organized."– Suzanne Nossel, president of PEN America

Front Page Talking Points is written by Alan Stamm for NIEonline.com, Copyright 2022

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