FFRF deplores record-breaking number of book bans

A graph labeled Book bans recorded per semester. July 1, 2021-December 31 2023. The graph shows a large spike from 1,841 in spring 2023 to 4,349 in fall 2023. The graph is from Pen America.
Photo from Pen America

The continuing escalation of book bans largely driven by Christian nationalists is cause for alarm, says the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

PEN America recently released a report recording more school book bans during the first six months of the 2023-24 school year than in all of 2022-23. It reports 4,349 such instances occurring last fall in 23 states and 52 public school districts.“This escalation follows two years of coordinated efforts to censor books in libraries and classrooms across the country,” notes PEN, “restricting young people’s freedom to read and learn.”

An organized attack against books and the freedom of expression, chiefly led by Christian nationalists, started in 2021, with extremist groups such as Moms for Liberty infiltrating school and library boards. In 2023 alone, more than 150 bills were introduced in 35 states to restrict access to books and punish library employees who did not comply. Despite this, resistance is growing to to restore access to banned books.

Book banners conflate references to sexual violence and abortion  — important topics students should have resources for — with obscenity. The terms “sexually explicit” and “sexual content” have no consistent legal definition across states, leading to confusion and different interpretations state by state. Consequently, 19 percent of book bans through June 2023 included depictions of sexual violence.

LGBTQ-plus narratives have also been termed “sexually explicit.” From 2021 to 2023, 36 percent of bans involved LGBTQ-plus content, and at least 8 percent of all banned books include transgender characters and narratives. Legislation has closely followed these bans, with some states passing laws that would out students to parents if they request name or pronoun changes, and that would require parental notification before any instruction on sexual orientation or gender identities in classrooms.

Similarly, disparagement of “critical race theory” and “woke ideology” is being employed to ban books with themes on race, racism, diversity and inclusivity. PEN America found that 37 percent of all book bans from 2021 to 2023 targeted books about race and racism. Arguments against these books include opposition to “critical race theory” and “woke ideology.” Such histories offend the white Christian nationalist playbook. Book banning and educational gag orders have policed and politicized curricula. In Oklahoma, for example, teachers are hesitant to assign David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon, even though the material details the important and relevant history of Oklahoma’s own Osage Nation.

Peddlers of book banning are taking over school and library boards, city councils and state legislatures to implement their ideological control over public institutions. Recommendations of review committees are routinely ignored to further the interests of the religious alt-right and its coordinated attack against freedom of expression.

“Parental rights” assertions have long been at the core of the book-banning movement, with banners arguing that parents must control what books and curricula their children consume. This has led to LGBTQ-plus and race-related books being taken off of library shelves in the name of  resisting so-called liberal “indoctrination.”

The coordinated attack has manifested in educational gag orders, in which school board members and legislators regulate or often outright prohibit educational content related to race, gender and sexuality in schools. Florida’s 2022 “Don’t Say Gay” bill sparked national backlash after prohibiting any instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity. Notably, Florida had the highest number of book bans from 2021 to 2023, with 3,135 bans across 11 school districts. Wisconsin (FFRF’s home state) came in second with 481 bans across three school districts.

The shocking increase in book bans shows that action to defend the right to read and access to information. Religion is undoubtedly the motivating factor behind removal of much of the opposed content; religion, of course, should not dictate what is available in public institutions.

“We agree with PEN America: Books aren’t harmful — censorship is,” says FFRF Co-President Dan Barker. “The right to read, to borrow a term, should be sacred.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with 40,000 members and several chapters all over the country. Our purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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