Don’t Let the Government Regulate the Books You Read

Most attempts at suppression rest on denying the fundamental premise of democracy. We trust Americans to recognize propaganda and misinformation and to make their own decisions about what they read and believe.

First of all, book banning violates the U.S. Constitution…

More national governments formally censor books and other reading materials than most people realize. It’s not just totalitarian regimes or military dictatorships that regulate people’s reading choices, though. A degree of government censorship occurs in parliamentary democracies like Canada, New Zealand, and Australia.

Still, the political turmoil in today’s United States hints strongly at a denial of the Constitution. When creating the Bill of Rights, the founders prioritized certain rights and responsibilities by stating that Congress “protects freedom of speech, the press, assembly, and the right to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

But that was centuries ago. Do people today still look to the Constitution to protect their rights? Or do they ban and censor literature that might benefit others?

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Why did book banning suddenly rear its ugly head?

Could the COVID crisis give parents and children enough time together for the adults to observe what their children had been reading? When the parents realized this, did they decide that if their children were reading books that conflicted with their values, then every other family should follow suit?

It may be the political divisiveness that began in 2016 and lasted through the following presidential term and beyond. Or it could be job loss, the economic downturn, boredom, or groundless hostility.

Pen America's Jonathan Friedman believes more is going on. “‘This is an orchestrated attack on books whose subjects only recently gained a foothold on school library shelves and in classrooms,” he remarked. “We are witnessing the erasure of topics that only recently represented progress toward inclusion.”

“Obscenity” in Texas

Texas came in first with the most significant number of book bans, 713 specifically. Pennsylvania followed it with a surprising 456, Florida had 204, Oklahoma with 43, Kansas with 30, and Tennessee with 16, according to a report created by Pen America.

In November 2021, Texas Governor Greg Abbot requested that state agencies devise a plan with measures to remove books containing “pornography” and “other obscene content” from school libraries.

Of course, the scuffle didn’t end with school libraries. In October 2022, a group of library patrons in Llano, Texas, filed a First Amendment lawsuit against county officials who had removed or restricted many books. An NPR interview followed.

According to the lead plaintiff, “it all began with raunchy but hilarious children’s books: My Butt Is So Noisy, I Broke My Butt, and I Need A New Butt.” Since these books contained illustrations of bare bottoms, a few outraged citizens in Llano characterized them as “pornographic filth.”

The author, Dawn McMillan, countered with an email to NPR from her New Zealand home, saying that she had written the butt books lightheartedly, with no intention to offend. Even a retired clerical worker who voted Republican stated, “I just think it’s censorship, pure and simple.”

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Florida’s Stop W.O.K.E. Legislation

In 2022, with support from Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, the Florida state legislature adopted the “Stop W.O.K.E. Act.” The acronym stands for “Wrong to our Kids and Employees.”

The bill, also known as the Individual Freedom Act (I.F.A.), was meant to prohibit teaching that “espouses, promotes, advances, inculcates, or compels” students and employees to believe any of the proposed legislation’s eight listed concepts. However, those concepts were deceptive, appearing to intentionally blame historically underrepresented cultural groups for being who they are.

In November 2022, U.S. District Judge Mark E. Walker issued a preliminary injunction preventing the law from being enforced. As in an earlier case, Pernell v. Florida Board of Governors, the plaintiffs could claim that the law violated the First Amendment. Due to vague wording and discrimination against speech based solely on viewpoints. Ironically, Walker began his ruling with a quote from Orwell’s 1984, describing the proposed law as a form of “doublespeak.”

Likening library book bans to university-level academic freedom, the N.A.A.C.P. filed a lawsuit in late November 2022. The plaintiffs included seven college and university instructors and one student across Florida to challenge the Stop W.O.K.E. Act. It limits how people can discuss systemic racism and sex discrimination in schools and workplaces.

With Texas and Florida among the more populous states, it’s no wonder that extensive book banning and censorship seem to be spreading elsewhere in the country. From January 1 to August 31, 2022, A.L.A. reported 681 attempts to ban or restrict library resources, with 1,651 unique titles targeted. Moreover, roughly 70 percent of the 681 targeted multiple titles — unlike past years, when most challenges only set out to remove or restrict one book.

Will the Constitution endure through the 2020s and beyond?

When the government attempts censorship, First Amendment freedoms are inevitably involved. However, private entities such as individuals, groups, or corporations can express themselves wherever and whenever they want — provided their words and actions are not obscene or harmful. There are exceptions, of course, and many of them are settled in court.

Still, by banning or challenging controversial books, many U.S. citizens continue to deny or “cancel” the right of others to read and form opinions about books without fear of retribution. Moreover, boundaries grow more porous by the day as conservative interest groups continue to pressure librarians and others to remove books and other “incendiary” materials from the shelves.

The Freedom to Read Statement, adopted in 1953 and amended several times by the American Library Association (A.L.A.), expresses the organization’s position that:

Most attempts at suppression rest on denying the fundamental premise of democracy: by exercising critical judgment that the ordinary individual will select the good and reject the bad. We trust Americans to recognize propaganda and misinformation and to make their own decisions about what they read and believe. We do not think they are prepared to sacrifice their heritage of a free press to be “protected” against what others think may be bad for them. We believe they still favor free enterprise in ideas and expression.

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