PEN America sounds alarm on dramatic increase in book bans

The number of book bans is rapidly increasing in American school districts.

PEN America attributes the increase to new laws and regulations restricting the types of publications minors can access. According to The New York Times, the free speech organization discovered 1,477 examples of book removals between July and December 2022, up from 1,149 cases in the previous six months.

“This is much bigger than you can really count,” said PEN’s director of free expression and education, Jonathan Friedman. “People need to understand that it’s not a single book being removed in a single school district, it’s a set of ideas that are under threat just about everywhere.”

PEN has used press stories, records requests, and publicly available information since July 2021 to track book bans, identifying more than 4,000 instances of book removals. Nearly 75 percent of the almost 1,500 book removals PEN tracked in the final half of 2022 were the result of coordinated efforts or new laws.

EveryLibrary, a political action group representing libraries, found that seven states last year — among them Florida, Tennessee, Oklahoma and Utah — approved legislation placing restrictions on library materials. This year, the group is keeping tabs on 113 laws it says will negatively affect libraries or restrict people’s access to certain books.

As the coordinated efforts of groups like Moms for Liberty have increased, certain novels — typically focusing on LGBTQ themes or confronting racial inequity — have been targeted nationwide. Teachers and librarians have been accused of endorsing pedophilia; some have lost jobs or resigned under duress after refusing to remove books.

In Florida, where the state legislature approved a law requiring that a certified media specialist evaluate every book on classroom and library shelves, some districts recommended that schools block access to all the titles until they could be examined, which actually resulted in empty library shelves.

Similar legislation was approved in Tennessee — the “Age Appropriate Materials Act” — which requires schools to categorize all books in their libraries and classrooms to ensure that they contain no offensive material. Some teachers opted to remove or cover up their entire classroom libraries rather than risk violating the law.

This week, a bill that would impose heavy fines and make book distributors and publishers criminally liable for supplying obscene materials to public schools moved through the Tennessee Legislature. PEN America urged Gov. Bill Lee to veto it, noting in a statement that the bill’s only objective is to coerce publishers into practicing self-censorship.

PEN’s analysis found that book bans are concentrated in a small number of states, though they comprise 21 states and 66 school districts. Texas had the most removals with 438, followed by Florida (357), Missouri (315) as well as South Carolina and Utah (each with more than 100).

“We’ve had two record-breaking years, and those of us who are fighting book bans really have our work cut out for us,” said Christopher Finan, National Coalition Against Censorship executive director, The Times reported. “At this point, we’re fighting an uphill battle.”

From theGrio
Photo: American Library Association