By Judd Legum
Across the country, right-wing activists are seeking to ban thousands of books from schools and other public libraries. Those promoting the bans often claim they are acting to protect children from pornography. But the bans frequently target books “by and about people of color and LGBTQ individuals.” Many of the books deemed pornography by activities are actually highly acclaimed novels.
Now, one state is fighting back.
Illinois is poised to become the first state to ban book bans. Legislation approved by the Illinois legislature, which Governor J.B. Pritzker (D) is expected to sign imminently, establishes an official policy against book bans:
It is further declared to be the policy of the State to encourage and protect the freedom of libraries and library systems to acquire materials without external limitation and to be protected against attempts to ban, remove, or otherwise restrict access to books or other materials.
The policy has some teeth. The Illinois government provides about $62 million in funding to libraries around the state. Last year, this money was granted to 877 public libraries and 712 school libraries. In order to be eligible for these grants, a library must “adopt the American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights… or, in the alternative, develop a written statement prohibiting the practice of banning books or other materials within the library or library system.”
The American Library Association Bill of Rights states that libraries “should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues.” Further, books and other materials “should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.” Instead, libraries should be committed to “free expression and free access to ideas.”
Book bans are not as common in Illinois compared to states like Texas and Florida — but they are on the rise. According to the American Library Association, “there were 67 attempts to ban books in Illinois in 2022, increasing from 41 the previous year.” In one instance, the Proud Boys, a far-right group, “targeted Illinois libraries…and harassed librarians.”
Illinois Secretary of State Alexi Giannoulias, who also serves as the state’s official librarian, said that the “concept of banning books contradicts the very essence of what our country stands for” and “defies what education is all about: teaching our children to think for themselves.” Giannoulias called the legislation “a triumph for our democracy, a win for First Amendment Rights, and a great victory for future generations.”
The legislation now awaits Pritzker’s signature. But the governor has already announced his support. “In Illinois, we don’t hide from the truth, we embrace it and lead with it,” Pritzker said when the legislation was introduced earlier this year. “Banning books is a devastating attempt to erase our history and the authentic stories of many.”
As Illinois pushes back, states across the country are facing an increasingly aggressive effort to ban books from libraries, especially in public schools. According to an April report by PEN America, an organization dedicated to freedom of expression, 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.” The organization “recorded more book bans during the fall 2022 semester than in each of the prior two semesters.”
Overall, in the 2022-23 school year, “PEN America’s Index of School Book Bans lists 1,477 instances of individual books banned, affecting 874 unique titles, an increase of 28 percent compared to the prior six months.” Access to a much larger number of books is restricted pending reviews. Bans are “most prevalent in Texas, Florida, Missouri, Utah, and South Carolina.”
While book bans are frequently described as efforts to defend “parents’ rights,” the overwhelming majority of parents reject book bans. A 2022 poll found 74% of parents “have quite a lot or a great deal of confidence in public libraries in their local school district to make good decisions about what books to include in their collections.” Further, 72% of parents agree with this statement: “Individual parents can set rules for their own children, but they do not have the right to decide for other parents what books are available to their children.” Only 28% of parents hold the opposite view: “Parents have a right not to have their children exposed to objectionable books at the library, and should be able to join with other parents in having those books removed.”
Unlike Illinois, however, many states are considering policies to make it easier to ban books. EveryLibrary, a national organization that builds voter support for libraries, is tracking 123 “bills of concern” that would “limit Americans’ freedom to read and think for themselves.” Many of these bills would “allow for civil and criminal prosecution of librarians, educators, higher [education] faculty, and museum professionals.” Other bills include “changes to obscenity and harmful to minors definitions that preempt First Amendment guarantees” or “outlaw the teaching of ‘divisive concepts.'”
State of denial
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (R), who has been leading the book-banning movement, denies that Florida has banned any books. “There has not been a single book banned in the state of Florida,” DeSantis told Twitter CEO Elon Musk during an event last week announcing DeSantis’ presidential run.
DeSantis’ argument is that banning books from school libraries is not a ban because those books may be available elsewhere in the state. In dismissing the significance of banning books from school libraries, DeSantis ignores the Constitutional rights of students.
The Supreme Court has sharply restricted the ability of the government to ban books from libraries, including school libraries. The limitations are spelled out in the seminal 1983 case of Board of Education v. Pico. In Pico, the court ruled that while school administrators “possess significant discretion to determine the content of their school libraries,” that “discretion may not be exercised in a narrowly partisan or political manner.” This is based on the fundamental Constitutional principle prohibiting “the official suppression of ideas.”
That’s why the school board in Escambia County, Florida, was sued earlier this month in federal court. The lawsuit, filed by Penguin Random House, five authors, two parents of children affected by the bans, and PEN America, alleges that the school board’s actions violate the Constitution.
Judd Legum is the founder and author of Popular Information, an independent newsletter dedicated to accountability journalism.
This article was published on May 31, 2023 at Popular Information.