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Informed Citizens

are Better Citizens

by Sylvia Mendoza

At the start of every school year, there are renewed efforts to ban books in school libraries and public libraries. According to the American Library Association (ALA), the 2021-2022 school year had a record number of book ban requests and the present school year is on track to break that record.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom told the Associated Press. “It’s both the number of challenges and the kinds of challenges. It used to be a parent had learned about a given book and had an issue with it. Now we see campaigns where organizations are compiling lists of books, without necessarily reading or even looking at them.”

According to the ALA, in 2022, there were attempts to ban, challenge, or restrict access to 1,651 different book titles in the United States—the highest number of complaints since the group began documenting book challenges more than 20 years ago. The Index of School Book Bans, compiled by PEN America, a nonprofit organization that advocates for free speech, goes even deeper. In its account, published in September 2022, PEN reported that from July 2021 through June 2022 there were 2,532 instances of individual book ban requests, which affected 1,648 unique titles by 1,261 authors. Those bans, according to PEN, occurred in 138 school districts in 32 states, representing more than 5,000 schools that have a combined enrollment of nearly four million students.

“Book bans violate the First Amendment because they deprive children or students of the right to receive information and ideas,” explained David L. Hudson Jr., a professor at Belmont University College of Law and a First Amendment law expert.

Both the ALA and PEN agree that the majority of the books being banned are in the young adult category and contain storylines featuring LGBTQ+ issues (674 titles), protagonists or secondary characters of color (659 titles), or directly address issues of race or racism (338 titles).

History of banning books

Book banning has been around as long as there have been books. In colonial America, for example, religious groups often led the charge to ban written content they deemed immoral. In the 1800s, many states in the South had outlawed anti-slavery sentiments, including anti-slavery books. So, the anti-slavery book Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe, started an uproar. Historian and American History professor Claire Parfait told National Geographic that Stowe’s book was publicly burned. Parfait also shared a story about a free Black minister who was sentenced to 10 years for owning a copy of the book.

According to the ALA and PEN, the most banned book of the past year was Gender Queer: A Memoir, by Maia Kobabe, which chronicles the author’s journey of self-identity and the adolescent confusion of coming out to her family and friends.

So, what is the difference between a book challenge and a ban? According to the ALA, a challenge “is an attempt to remove or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or group. A banning is the removal of those materials.” The National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) and the ALA have outlined a best practice process for the removal of a book from library bookshelves. Challenges, they say, should follow these steps:  filing a written, formal challenge by parents or local residents; forming a review committee, comprised of librarians, teachers, administrators, and community members; and keeping books in circulation during the reconsideration process until a final decision is made. PEN found that 98% of the bans outlined in its report did not follow the best practice guidelines for removal as outlined by the NCAC and the ALA.

U.S. Supreme Court weighs in

The U.S. Supreme Court has only weighed in on the subject of banning books once and the ruling wasn’t definitive because no opinion commanded a majority.

“The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Island Trees School District v. Pico (1982) that books may not be removed from library shelves just because school officials find ideas in the books offensive,” says Professor Hudson, who is also the author of The Constitution Explained. “However, the ruling is quite narrow and technically only applies to the removal of books from library shelves.” In other words, the ruling did not address banning books in school curriculum.

The Court’s ruling came in 1982, but the case began in 1975 when a community group in Levittown, NY wanted to remove nine books from library shelves in the Island Trees School District, including Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five and Langston Hughes’s Best Short Stories by Negro Writers. Their justification for removal was that the books were “anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic and just plain filthy.” The school district removed the books.

Steven Pico, a high school senior, and four other students challenged the decision claiming the books were removed because “passages in the books offended [the group’s] social, political, and moral tastes and not because the books, taken as a whole, were lacking in educational value.” The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the students’ favor, but the decision is complicated.

Writing for a three-justice plurality of the Court and not a majority, Justice William J. Brennan said, “We hold that local school boards may not remove books from school library shelves simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books and seek by their removal to prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion.”

Two other justices concurred with Justice Brennan in varying degrees in favor of the students; however, it was not a clearcut decision and many legal scholars still argue about the degree of legal guidance the decision provides.

In one of four dissents in the case, Justice Warren E. Burger wrote, “If the school can set curriculum, select teachers, and determine what books to purchase for the school library, it surely can decide which books to discontinue or remove from the school library.”

Banning books in the Garden State

New Jersey is no stranger to banning books. There have been recent efforts to ban books in Wayne, Ramsey, Westfield, as well as the North Hunterdon-Voorhees School District. Martha Hickson, librarian for North Hunterdon-Voorhees Regional High School, pushed back on efforts to remove five LGBTQ+-themed books from library shelves. Those titles included Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe, Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison, All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson, Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, and This Book Is Gay by Juno Dawson. Hickson was determined not to let the books be removed.

“These were highly reviewed books, had won awards, and there was no basis for them to be banned,” Hickson says. “I had worked for 17 years to make this a safe space, fighting for First Amendment rights, for the rights of students to have a safe space.”

Hickson contacted the ALA and other organizations. As a result, a community of alumni, parents, students, and other supporters came to the school board meetings to speak against banning the books. Even as they were subjected to taunts by adults, the students played a critical role in citing the importance of keeping the titles available, says Hickson.

“Their voices were the most powerful,” she says.

Ultimately, the decision was made to keep the five books on the school’s library shelves. Hickson says when parents push to remove books from school libraries, they trample on the rights of other parents and supporters who want the books to be available.

“Students have a right to access a diverse range of stories and perspectives,” Hickson says, and a decision to ban or restrict access to a book can hurt young people who see themselves reflected in those books.

Banning books can also have a harmful impact on educators and librarians who are under constant surveillance, which can negatively affect teaching and learning. The ALA cited 27 instances of police reports filed against library staff. In her case, Hickson says she felt ambushed when she was trolled on social media, received hate mail and physical threats, and her tenure at the school was at risk.

Still, Hickson believes fighting censorship is worth it so other librarians and students know they’re not alone. In recognition of her efforts to fight against banning books, Hickson received the Lemony Snicket Prize for Noble Librarians Faced with Adversity from the ALA in June 2022.

In another school district, the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education has made significant changes to its policies regarding banning books. The new policy states that only a student or parent/guardian of a student in the school district can lodge a book challenge.

Elissa Malespina, a board member, as well as a librarian, told nj.com, “We don’t want some random community member that doesn’t have a kid in the school…We want a stakeholder.”

The school district’s new policy also stipulate that anyone challenging a book must prove that it violates the state’s education standards. In addition, challenged books will not be removed while being reviewed.

A new strategy

In Texas, a new legal argument has emerged. While most book bans are challenged on First Amendment grounds, the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas has filed a complaint with the U.S. Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights, claiming that a Texas school district violated Title IX’s prohibition of discrimination on the basis of sex when it removed 130 books from library shelves—at least three-quarters of which featured LGBTQ themes or characters. The Biden Administration has interpreted Title IX to include discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

ACLU attorney Chloe Kempf told The Washington Post that the removals “send a message to the entire community that LGBTQ identities are inherently obscene, worthy of stigmatization, and uniquely deprive LGBTQ students of the opportunity to read books that reflect their own experiences.”

Professor Hudson is not sure the strategy will be successful even though he says it’s a tangible argument. “There does appear to be continuing discrimination against books with LGBTQ themes and topics,” he says.

What students can do

Censorship silences voices and erases life experiences, but Hickson says students can be vigilant to protect their right to read books of their choice. She suggests joining school clubs that protect the right to read; volunteering to attend library, school board, and First Amendment events; and contacting local, state, and federal representatives to urge them to stand against book banning.

Discussion Questions

  1. To what degree should parents have a say in what books their children have access to? Should a parent, community or school board member be allowed to make those decisions for all students in a district? Does the age of the student make a difference? Explain your answer.
  2. What do you think of the new policy passed by the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education? Is it a valid expectation that whoever challenges a book is a “stakeholder?” Why or why not?

Glossary Words
— having a greater number (as in votes), but not a majority.

This article originally appeared in the winter 2023 edition of Respect, NJSBF’s diversity newsletter.