Censorship Is a U.S. Civil Rights Issue

Censoring books that feature LGBTQ+ or BIPOC voices is akin to a civil rights violation.

Censorship and book banning only add insult to injury.

Censorship that violates the civil rights of any person or group is like reopening an old wound and letting it fester. It’s ugly, hurts, and can stop its victims in their paths.

Robert Longley explains that: 

"Civil rights are the rights of individuals to be protected against unfair treatment based on certain personal characteristics like race, gender, age, or disability. Governments enact civil rights laws to protect people from discrimination in social functions such as education, employment, housing, and access to public accommodations."

Since there is a degree of overlap between civil and human rights, people often wonder how to distinguish one from the other. 

Human rights include:

  • Right to life
  • Right to education
  • Protection from torture
  • Freedom of expression
  • Right to a free trial

In the U.S., civil rights include:

  • Protection from discrimination
  • Right to free speech
  • Right to due process
  • Right to equal protection
  • Right against self-incrimination

Note that civil rights can change based on where someone is a citizen since civil rights are essentially an agreement between them and the nation or state where they reside.


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Civil Rights and Gender Discrimination 

On June 15, 2020, the United States Supreme Court handed down a landmark 6-3 decision affirming that the prohibition on sex discrimination in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 extends to discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. This decision was based on three related cases

  • Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, and Altitude Express Inc. v. Zarda, where gay men were fired based on sexual orientation
  • R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes Inc. v. Equal Employment and Opportunity Commission, in which a transgender woman lost her job due to gender identity.

The Supreme Court combined these cases, issuing a single opinion — Bostock v. Clayton County — which upheld the view that employers who fire individuals simply for being gay or transgender violate Title VII. This framing provides an essential tool to address the widespread discrimination LGBTQ people face in employment and other life areas.

And although Justice Samuel Alito’s dissent in Bostock reeks of transphobia and homophobia, it’s accurate in showing that the court’s broad holding could advance LGBTQ equality under civil rights statutes that prohibit sex discrimination, including Title IX, the Affordable Care Act, the Fair Housing Act, and the Constitution’s 14th Amendment.

More recently, the federal government started investigating the Granbury Independent School District in Texas regarding its alleged removal of books with LGBTQ characters. This episode was an initial assessment of a new legal argument stating that it might be considered discriminatory if students can’t see themselves represented in school books.

The U.S. Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights is investigating a discrimination complaint lodged in summer 2022. Texas ACLU attorney Chloe Kempf states that:

"Public school districts cannot discriminate against students on the basis of sex, gender identity, or sexual orientation. By choosing to open this investigation in response to our complaint, the federal government is signaling that remedying discrimination against LGBTQIA+ students is a top priority and that school districts cannot deny students the right to be themselves in school, be it through book bans, discriminatory comments, or other harmful policies."

Meanwhile, Granbury schools removed at least 130 books from library shelves, three-quarters with LGBTQ characters or themes.

Texas ACLU attorneys believe these actions violate Title IX, the federal law prohibiting discrimination based on sex in public schools. And the Biden administration recently interpreted this law as forbidding discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity — a key finding for the ACLU chapter’s argument.

Book removal and the accompanying comments create hostile environments, sending a message to the larger community that LGBTQ identities are inherently obscene and deserve the stigmatization they’ve “earned.” 


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Race and Civil Rights

A practical censorship definition is the “suppression of ideas and information that certain persons — individuals, groups, or government officials — find objectionable or dangerous.” Still, this concept invariably conflicts with our First Amendment right to freedom of expression. Thus, the U.S. has long struggled to find a balance between the two.

Racial inequality has been a part of U.S. history for centuries, since 1619, specifically — a year before the Mayflower arrived in New England. But conversations about this reality are kept under wraps. For example, Malcolm X, prominent in the civil rights movement, was removed from history textbooks since some considered him a traitor to the country. 

In another instance, The Rabbit’s Wedding, a children’s book about a black and a white bunny, was restricted in an Alabama library for fear of encouraging miscegenation. And Jubilee, a historical novel revealing America’s racial past, was challenged because some worried that its candor might create “racial strife.” 

Many in the United States see racial controversy as part of the distant past. Slavery was abolished, Jim Crow laws overturned, and explicit racism made taboo. And despite electing a Black president twice, highbrow terms like “color-blind society” and “post-racial America” persist throughout academia.

Today’s school-to-prison pipeline continues to send many African American and Latinx students directly from education to the criminal justice system. Racial profiling also remains a practice in many law enforcement agencies. And voter disenfranchisement still targets mainly racial and ethnic minorities — especially those with low incomes.

Modern textbooks provide an excellent example since most of these books remain focused on presenting America in a positive light to give proper attention to the historical injustice that helped build America. 

Moreover, publishers know that selling their products requires creating “patriotic” storylines to satisfy buyers. Unfortunately, that entails overlooking or minimizing the racial discord that has plagued our country since well before its founding.


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If You Can’t Beat Them, at Least Don’t Join Them

Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, said that today:

"We’re seeing the result of a divisive campaign intended to limit everyone’s access to information, to really sanction one viewpoint, one political view, one approach to information, to prevent everyone from having the ability to make choices for themselves."



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