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FOR THE WEEK OF JAN. 30, 2023

Book bans: Librarians, caught in political 'culture war,' defend their role

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School and public libraries across the country feel intensifying scrutiny and pressure from some politicians, parents and activist groups. Activities include attempts to ban or restrict books dealing with race, gender, sexuality, bullying, assault and identity. In a few extreme cases, library directors are criticized harshly and sometimes harassed online for defending targeted books or authors. "There are these really high-profile people, like governors or congresspeople, who want to use a book ban as part of their political platform," says the American Library Association's president. That risks depriving readers of "access to certain ideas, or to ideologies that will help them create more empathy and understanding for one another even if we don't come from similar backgrounds," she warns.

Here are examples of what's happening in four states:

  • North Dakota legislators this month began considering a bill to prohibit sex education and gender identity books from public libraries if they have "sexually explicit" photos or illustrations. It proposes up to 30 days in prison for librarians who refuse to remove banned titles.
  • Florida's Board of Education a few weeks ago adopted a yearly training requirement to tell school librarians what can and can't be available in school media centers. They'll learn about details of a 2022 state law that prohibits instructional materials about critical race theory, social justice "and any other unsolicited theories that may lead to student indoctrination." Schools now also also must seek input from parents before buying library books.
  • Missouri parents formally challenged 16 library books at Nixa High School last fall. Two were removed and 10 others are off shelves in restricted-access status.
  • Louisiana's attorney general, decrying "taxpayer-subsided sexualization of children,” recently created a web portal to report library books that residents think are inappropriate.

Brian Hoffman, a parent in Naxa, Mo., told the school board in October: "I don't want pornographic material in a library where I can't supervise my children on what it is that they're picking up and reading and learning." A mom at that meeting, Rebecca Kaufman, said: "Erring on the side of caution with our kids' maturing hearts and minds isn't book banning." More than 50 organizations around the country push for library book restrictions and bans, according to the nonprofit PEN America group, which backs free expression. Moms for Liberty, the largest group, has over 200 chapters.

Librarians and others are pushing back against what they see as part of a "culture war." "No one on the right side of history has ever been on the side of censorship and hiding books," Louisiana middle school librarian Amanda Jones told a public library board last year. "Once you start relocating and banning one topic, it becomes a slippery slope." She soon drew vicious personal attacks on social media. In Orlando, Fla., middle school art teacher Clinton McCracken says: "The governor and the Florida Board of Education are focused on creating unnecessary rules to fix a problem that didn't exist."

Teen says: "Among the student body, there is so much opposition [to bans] because we all understand that at the end of the day, no one’s forcing us to read." – Meghana Nakkanti, Nixa (Missouri) High School

Parent says: "Some of us go to great lengths to combat the evils of the internet through filters or blocking apps. And just because it's out there doesn't mean that we shirk from our responsibility to make a change in what we can control." -- Carissa Corson to Board of Education in Nixa, Mo.

Association leader says: "There is this small minority of people who . . . are trying to silence diverse voices and ideas and using public libraries as a pawn in this fight." -- Lessa Kanani’opua Pelayo-Lozada of Palos Verdes, Calif., American Library Association president

Front Page Talking Points is written by Alan Stamm for NIEonline.com, Copyright 2023

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