Libraries face increased attempts to ban books

Chiaradio complained to the school committee – the chair was his sister – and the committee sided with the school. He later filed a criminal complaint with Westerly Police, arguing unsuccessfully that Gender Queer and two other books violated federal and state obscenity laws.

In her 24 years as a librarian, Mirando said, she had never experienced anything like this. “I believe very strongly in a student’s right to read and free access to information,” she told the Globe.

But of late, right-wing groups have mobilized to challenge books more often than ever, urging parents to push for books to be removed from schools and public libraries. The books that matter are often award-winning titles written by people of color or feature stories about people of color that activists claim tangle with “critical race theory” or “divisive ‘, or they have LGBTQ characters and issues that activists call ‘pornographic’ or ‘obscene.’

According to Middle Tennessee University’s Free Speech Center First Amendment Encyclopedia, “A book ban, a form of censorship, occurs when individuals, government officials, or organizations remove books from libraries, school reading lists, or bookstore shelves because they object to their contents, ideas, or.” Subjects.”

“The unprecedented number of challenges we are seeing already this year reflects a coordinated, national effort to silence marginalized or historically underrepresented voices and deprive all of us – especially young people – of the opportunity to experience a world beyond borders more personally experience,” ALA President Lessa Kananiʻopua Pelayo-Lozada said in a statement.

“Efforts to censor entire categories of books that reflect particular voices and views show that the moral panic isn’t about children, it’s about politics,” she said. “Organizations with a political agenda put out lists of books they don’t like.”

According to data released this month by the American Library Association, the number of attempts to ban or restrict library resources in schools, universities and public libraries in 2021 was the highest the ALA has recorded in its 20 years of data collection . And this year it is expected to be just as high – or higher.

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From January through August of this year, the ALA documented 681 attempts to ban or restrict library resources and targeted 1,651 titles. Last year there were 729 attempts to censor library resources, targeting 1,597 books.

The most frequently banned authors include winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature, National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, Booker Prize, Newbery Award, Caldecott Medal, Eisner Award, PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, NAACP Image Award and the GLAAD Award for Media Representation. Written and illustrated by Maia Kobabe, which won an Alex Award from the American Library Association for its “particular appeal to young adults ages 12 to 18,” among other awards, “Gender Queer: A Memoir” is the most challenged and banned book .

While those who want to ban books have been vocal, they are in the minority, according to an ALA poll. A majority of voters across party lines oppose efforts to remove books from public libraries.

Three-fourths of parents of children in public schools express a high level of trust in school librarians to make good decisions about what books to provide children with, according to the ALA, and when asked about specific types of books that being the focus of local debates, large majorities say they should be available in school libraries in an age-appropriate manner.

The increase in fights over books has prompted school librarians across Rhode Island to develop policies for dealing with challenges, said Joan Eldridge Mouradjian, president of School Librarians of Rhode Island and librarian at Narragansett Pier Middle School.

For example, in Westerly, a person requesting the removal of a book from a school library must fill out a five-page form in which they must explain in detail their concerns, why they think the material is inappropriate, and whether they have read the entire book and cite it among other sources, which correspond to their opinion. A committee including a teacher, a student’s parent, a certified librarian, and a school administrator or officer reads the book, evaluates the information, and makes a decision.

Other libraries have similar policies, all aimed at establishing careful procedures for evaluating whether book removal should be considered. Pen America, a non-profit organization that champions freedom of speech, has issued a fact sheet for librarians who face harassment.

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“Of course, if a parent doesn’t want their kids to read a book, that’s their right,” Mouradjian said, “but they can’t take it off the shelf for other kids.”

PEN America has identified at least 50 groups campaigning for book bans at the national, state or local level. Of the national groups, Moms for Liberty, which started in 2021, has grown the most widely, with over 200 local groups listed on its website.

According to PEN America, the groups exchange lists of books to challenge and use tactics such as swarming school board meetings, using inflammatory language about “grooming” and “pornography,” and filing criminal charges against school officials, teachers and librarians.

Mirando worries about new librarians who may be reluctant to buy a book because they don’t want backlash and fear they won’t be supported by their school community. This “soft censorship” could keep books off the shelves just as easily as the more formal challenges.

In Rhode Island, officials at the Pawtucket School removed Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home” in January after the parent of a freshman at the Jacqueline M. Walsh School for the Performing and Visual Arts said he found the book, a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist, offensive.

A new challenge in North Kingstown came from the tiny Rhode Island section of the Independent Women’s Forum. The IMF, with its partner Independent Women’s Network and political advocacy arm Independent Women’s Voice, are right-wing nonprofit organizations that describe themselves as women’s organizations that advance policies that “enhance people’s freedom, opportunity, and well-being.”

However, the Center for Media and Democracy calls the IMF “an anti-feminist organization funded overwhelmingly by right-wing foundations,” including the Koch brothers. An investigation by The Intercept found that the IMF received millions of dollars by dark money groups pushing conservative control of the courts.

Nicole Solas of South Kingstown, Rhode Island chapter leader and senior fellow at the IWF’s Education Freedom Center, led a small, vocal, and ultimately unsuccessful effort to remove “gender queer” from the North Kingstown High School Library, though she doesn’t have a child in school. When she failed, she went to the state police to file a complaint against the librarian, principal, and school committee chair for possession of a book containing “pornography.”

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“I don’t want 18+ books with pornography in school libraries. It’s very simple,” Solas said in a text message to Globe Monday after moderating an IMF forum on “Gender Ideology in Schools,” where she claimed educators indoctrinate children. “There’s a big difference between saying it shouldn’t be shown to kids in public schools and wanting it to be banned. That difference is sensationalization [sic] that misleads the public.”

But the executive director of the Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union says that’s what book banning is.

“A book ban is simply removing a book from a library because of its content, making it inaccessible to the public,” said Steven Brown. “I find it very unfortunate that librarians are bearing the brunt of these culture wars.”

“It’s one thing for a person to control what their own children read, but it’s unscrupulous for people to try to dictate what other people’s children read. It goes directly against what an education system should be,” he added

According to Brian Hodge, spokesman for Attorney General Peter F. Neronha, child pornography should depict “a real, real child,” as opposed to an illustration, as is the case in Gender Queer. And to be considered obscene, prosecutors would have to determine “that the material has absolutely no serious artistic or literary value.” The availability of a book in reputable bookstores and recognition in literary circles greatly undermines arguments about profanity, he noted.

For the complaint against Gender Queer, state police and the Attorney General’s Office concluded that state criminal child pornography and obscenity statutes “are clearly not applicable,” Hodge said.

The attorney general believes it is up to parents, school administrators and school boards to decide whether a book should remain on a school library’s shelves and who should have access to it, Hodge said in a statement.

“And certainly, filing criminal charges against school librarians based on a disagreement over what should appear on high school library shelves is not a priority of this office,” Hodge added.

Amanda Milkovits can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMilkovits.

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