Book bans move to center stage in the red state education wars

Though battles over access to controversial titles traditionally have been fought district by district, and even school by school, Republican-controlled states including Florida, Georgia, Tennessee and Texas are now pushing statewide rules that make it easier for critics to remove books they dislike from school libraries in every community.

At the same time, although none have yet passed, more red states are seriously debating proposals that would make it easier for critics to force the removal of books even from public libraries serving the adult population.

“The primary target still is school libraries and school librarians, K-12 teachers, but we are seeing this bleed over to public libraries,” says Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom at the American Library Association.

To the conservatives pushing this agenda, these new restrictions on libraries — like the parallel red-state laws limiting certain discussions in the classroom — are a means of protecting parental rights.

“Parents want education for their kids: They are not interested in indoctrination through the school system,” DeSantis argued late last month when signing a bill facilitating efforts to remove books from school libraries.

But to a wide array of civil rights, civil liberties and free expression groups, these restrictions represent an effort to enshrine the values of one particular group of parents — conservative Whites — over the priorities and experiences of an increasingly diverse society in which kids of color now compose a clear majority of the public school student body nationwide.

The parallel battles over how teachers address race, gender and sexual orientation and how libraries regulate access to books represent the broadest attempt to limit what students are taught since the “loyalty oath” demands on teachers during the red scare period of the 1950s, or even the “Scopes trial”-era laws banning the teaching of evolution during the 1920s.

“There is an overarching trend here of interference with the right to learn and the right to access information,” says Vera Eidelman a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project. On both fronts, she says, critics are “targeting the same set of viewpoints and experiences and aspects of education,” primarily materials relating to race, gender roles and the experiences of LGBTQ individuals.

‘Parallel movements’

The torrent of laws approved in Republican-controlled states since 2021 to limit how teachers can discuss race, gender or sexual orientation has been part of a much broader current. Since the 2020 election, the 23 states in which Republicans control both the governorship and the state legislature have approved a surge of statutes restricting abortion rights, making it more difficult to vote, barring transgender girls and women from participating in grade school or college sports, banning transgender care for minors and increasing penalties for public protest. Cumulatively, as I’ve written, these proliferating red-state measures constitute an attempt to reverse what legal analysts call the “rights revolution” of roughly the past 60 years, in which Congress and the Supreme Court have generally expanded the circle of basic civil rights and liberties guaranteed to all Americans and reduced the ability of states to curtail those rights.

Critics of the new wave of red-state measures see an especially powerful through line connecting the laws that make it more difficult to vote and increase the legal penalties for disruptive public protest with the bills that censor classroom instruction or empower critics to ban books in school libraries. All three thrusts make it more difficult for opponents to mobilize opposition to the agenda the red-state Republicans are advancing.

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“There are parallel movements across voting rights and protest rights and education rights,” says Jonathan Friedman, director of free expression and education at PEN America, a free-speech group founded by prominent authors. “In each case, you have a kind of flowering of experimentation of legislation to see what kind of things can fit to make it harder for people to vote, to make it more costly to protest and what would make it harder to access information in school.”

The restrictions on classroom teaching have exploded across the red states since 2021. Jeffrey Sachs, a political scientist at Acadia University in Nova Scotia who tracks these proposals for PEN America, counts at least 13 Republican-controlled states that have approved laws censoring how teachers talk about “divisive concepts,” such as systematic racial inequity, and five more states with GOP governors that have imposed administrative limits on such teachings through state boards of education or other bodies.
The conservatives pushing these bills portray them as a necessary barrier against liberal attempts to “indoctrinate” students through concepts such as critical race theory, an academic analysis of systemic discrimination, or the 1619 Project, a New York Times project that stressed the impact of slavery on American society. At a recent event with DeSantis, Alicia Farrant, a mother and school board candidate in Orange County, Florida, described her state’s version of these proposals as proof that parents “will not cower to the divisive agendas that are infiltrating our public schools in order to corrupt and destroy the educational foundations of our great nation.”
This wave does not appear to have crested. The Florida legislation barring discussion of sexual orientation in the youngest grades and limiting it in older grades has spawned copycat bills in other Republican-controlled states. More states are also considering laws that would extend the classroom censorship to public colleges and universities. Other GOP-controlled states, including Missouri, are considering their own bills on race and gender, and some of the states that have already passed such laws are doubling back with new proposals — such as a proposed amendment to the state constitution in Arizona to ban the teaching of critical race theory.

“The level of focus and unity of language that we are seeing across all of these different bills is pretty extraordinary,” Sachs says. “There is an incredible amount of overlap, down to the punctuation of these bills, so we can definitely consider this a national campaign and not one that is responding to the specific context of each state.”

Public libraries are not immune

This campaign has developed so much momentum that it has overflowed the classroom to reach the library — particularly those in schools, but now also, for the first time, lapping at the doors of those that serve the public.

In recent decades, these fights have unfolded mostly locally, with challenges to specific books at individual libraries. Those fights are clearly intensifying: On Monday, the American Library Association reported that in 2021 it had recorded 729 such efforts to ban books at school or public libraries, the most since it began cataloging these efforts in 2000. The most-challenged books, the group reported, were from Black or LGBTQ authors or centered on characters from those communities.
The news out of Florida and Texas exemplifies a larger conservative trend
But this struggle is also expanding to a new level, with multiplying red-state efforts to create statewide policies designed to lead to the removal of more books. In Texas, for instance, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott is pressuring school boards to remove what he calls “pornography” from school libraries. Abbott’s letter followed a more detailed complaint from a Republican state legislator who sent districts a letter inquiring about the presence of 850 books, including several by prominent Black or LGBTQ authors.

In Florida, DeSantis signed a bill late last month that requires school libraries to post more information about their collections and seek community input on materials they acquire. Most importantly, the new law requires the state Department of Education to collect and publish a report on which books have been removed in any district across the state.

At the bill-signing ceremony, DeSantis said these provisions would ensure that students are exposed only to age-appropriate books. The new measures will increase schools’ “ability to choose what is appropriate for different age groups,” he argued. “Parents are going to have the ability to have their voices heard.”

But opponents of the legislation say the requirement for the state Education Department to publish a list of books removed in any district provides a road map for critics to demand the removal of such books in all districts.

Florida, as is the case with many of the cultural flashpoints now dominating red-state legislatures, has moved fastest and furthest. But Georgia’s Republican-controlled legislature last week passed its own bill facilitating challenges to books in school libraries; measures targeting school libraries have also passed one chamber in the GOP-controlled legislatures in Kansas and Tennessee, though they face uncertain prospects of final approval. Similarly motivated bills have surfaced in Nebraska and Oklahoma as well.

In another escalation to the book wars, red state proposals are now emerging to ease the removal of books even in public libraries serving the adult, as well as the youth, population. These proposals generally would strip away the protection for librarians (and educators) from state obscenity laws, allowing officials to criminally charge librarians if they stock materials that a prosecutor considers obscene.

Republican legislators have introduced bills to eliminate those protections in more than half a dozen states, according to the American Library Association’s tracking. None have yet passed into law, though one has cleared the state House in Idaho. Yet given the pace at which ideas once on the fringe, such as bans on gender-affirming health care for transgender minors, are advancing through the red states, Caldwell-Stone says the library association is “deeply concerned that one of these bills will eventually pass and will be used as a means of both intimidating librarians or actually charging them with crimes — based on this falsehood that mainstream materials, published by mainstream publishers, are somehow illegal speech unprotected by the First Amendment.”
Last fall, a library faced such an investigation in Campbell County, Wyoming, after a local church complained about the presence of LGBTQ and sexual education materials there; a special prosecutor appointed by the county ultimately decided not to press charges.
All these confrontations underscore the cultural chasm between increasingly diverse younger generations and the socially conservative, predominantly White and Christian, Republican coalition that holds power in the red states. Children of color have constituted a majority of the public school K-12 student body since 2014, according to federal statistics, and now make up nearly 55% of the total. Gallup recently reported that 1 in 5 members of Generation Z, as well as 1 in 10 millennials, identify as LGBTQ, far more than in older generations. And the Public Religion Research Institute has found that more than a third of young adults identify as secular, without affiliation with any organized religion.
Supporters of the efforts to restrict classroom teaching and/or ban books, by contrast, often cite a threat to “traditional” morality as a justification. When DeSantis signed the bill easing challenges to school library collections, one of the speakers he brought to the podium was a mother who had been prominent in protests against school masking requirements in Volusia County. She said her concern about school libraries was prompted in part by a picture book called “Red: A Crayon’s Story,” in which a crayon labeled red discovers that it’s really blue. The mother, Rebecca Sarwi, said she objected to “subliminal messaging for kids that young” that “normalizes them to believe” that they may be “something other than the unique individual that God created them to be.”

Serving ‘the needs of everyone’

Such arguments highlight what may be the core issue in this intensifying dispute: Though the classroom and library restrictions are being portrayed as an effort to strengthen “parents’ rights,” in practice they mean giving one set of parents a veto over educational content not only for their own kids, but others’ as well.

Librarians “don’t disagree with parents who want to guide their children’s readings … but they stand firmly opposed to one family dictating what is available to everyone else in a school library or a public library,” Caldwell-Stone told me. “We all live in diverse communities these days … and we firmly believe that as public institutions, both public libraries and public school libraries need to serve the needs of everyone and reflect everyone’s lives in the library collection.”

Polls have generally found broad skepticism about the new classroom and library restrictions. A recent CBS survey found that more than four-fifths of Americans opposed banning books because they criticized American history or discussed race. A recent Grinnell College national poll found more than 70% of Americans trusted school officials to decide what materials were appropriate for their libraries. In a recent CNN poll, only about 1 in 6 adults thought parents should have the principal say on how race is taught in schools.
Opponents of the restrictive measures are trying to organize greater resistance to them. Red Wine and Blue, a nationwide group of suburban Democratic-leaning women fighting the red-state proposals, has organized a nationwide “read-in” of banned books on Thursday hosted by Dolly Parton’s sister Stella that features the authors of targeted books such as “I Am Rosa Parks” and “Heather Has Two Mommies.” That same day, a House Oversight and Reform subcommittee is holding a hearing on the book ban efforts, which could signal a turn toward greater attention to the issue from national Democrats.

“After a long time of banging my head on the kitchen counter, I do feel like there’s progress and we are seeing some results,” says Katie Paris, Red Wine and Blue’s founder.

Paris says thousands of women have gone through the group’s training, which is designed to counter the organizing of the conservative organizations supporting the restrictions, such as Moms for Liberty. Though the number of proposed book bans continues to rise, Paris says, a smaller share of them have been approved in recent months by districts or school administrators, according to the group’s figures. In several cases, others note, students themselves are taking a more visible role in opposing these measures — as in the widespread walkouts in Florida against the “don’t say gay” bill and a lawsuit brought by Missouri students against a book ban in their school.

“One element is these (conservative) parents vs. all the other parents, and the other is the parents vs. the students,” says Friedman. “I don’t think it’s at all clear parents have rights to prevent their children from being exposed to the world.”

Still, even with occasional setbacks, the drive to control the flow of information to young people is demonstrating enormous energy in red states. With Congress unlikely to pass any national legislation combating this trend, opponents’ best chance to slow the tide are legal challenges, some of which are already working through the courts. In the 1982 Pico decision upholding the First Amendment rights of students, the Supreme Court ruled, as the ACLU’s Eidelman puts it, “schools cannot remove books from their shelves merely because they disagree with the ideas expressed in those books.”

Yet many observers note it’s unclear whether this more conservative Republican-appointed Supreme Court majority would uphold that standard. What is clear is that more of the red states appear intent on testing the boundaries of what the Supreme Court will allow through new laws facilitating the banning of books from school, or potentially even public, libraries.

“This is one of the key characteristics of the era in which we live,” says Paris. “I think we’ve had to learn there are no bounds. That is what makes this a fight for democracy. This isn’t just a culture war sideshow.”