Librarians should take advantage of this year’s Banned Books Week celebration to help students learn that the freedom to read is based on principles of intellectual freedom. What ideas does society allow or restrict? Who decides?
If we are to build civic-literate students, we should offer them opportunities to learn that book censorship is more than just censoring “curse” words, violence, or sex scenes. Indeed, this point will naturally arise by simply sharing OIF’s top 10 challenged books in 2020. 8 of the 10 books were challenged due to racial or gender identity content.
OIF blogger Sabine Jean Dantus previously wrote about this topic, including a tweet from award-winning author Kelly Yang in which she shares her own experiences with challenges to Front Desk. In general, parents against diverse books believe that schools should not cover subjects such as racism because an end result is that white students feel badly about themselves and are taught that they are inherently racist. As Dantus points out, this misguided view invalidates the actual lived experiences of people of color. Students can also learn empathy by reading about other people’s lived experiences instead of relying on propagandistic talking points perpetuated by politicians and media “analysts.”
A lack of media literacy skills can lead to limiting intellectual freedom rights. This past week, I discovered a Facebook group, South Carolina Parents Involved in Education, which appears to be anti-public education and pro-home school. They recently held a meeting in Summerville, SC, to discuss “how to find and eradicate Critical Race Theory in your schools.” I noticed that the administrator shared a link to this Babylon Bee article, presenting it as fact. When I pointed out the satirical nature of that site, the administrator responded, “I believe you are wrong. It is not satire. It is news.”
There are many other examples of this type of activism. Now, actual legislation is being proposed based on this phantom menace. What is being called the “Curriculum Review of Teachings (CRT) Transparency Act” requiring public schools to post curriculum on an open-access website was proposed by U.S. Congressman Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, and Education and Labor Committee Republican Leader Virginia Foxx, R-North Carolina.
The idea that curriculum is hidden because of nefarious intent is simply false. One response is to remind others that the state standards often serve as a foundational curriculum guide, and they are already readily available. Most schools use state-adopted textbooks. Furthermore, given schools’ ultra-reliance on technology during the pandemic, teaching resources are probably already available in a learning management system such as Schoology or Google Classroom.
Have students ever looked closely at your library displays? Have them consider whether or not library displays should have to be approved. The Craighead County Library Board in Jonesboro, AK, voted down two proposals that would have significantly censored library staff. Displays would have required pre-approval and would have been limited to one area, which became a concern due to an LGBTQ display. Similarly, all children’s library acquisitions would have required board approval. Every single book.
In Wisconsin at Prairie du Chien Public Library, Republican congressional candidate Derrick Van Orden complained loudly and aggressively about a Gay Pride display, causing library employees to feel scared and unsafe, and checked out all of the books from the display but one. According to the article, he was overheard calling the books disgusting and factually incorrect. In a statement, he paradoxically asserted that books like these serve to further divide Americans and unfairly portray Republicans as intolerant…which his actions proved.
In early September, the New York Times reported that a traveling LGBTQ exhibit which showed “how L.G.B.T.Q. people had organized in Kansas City and later created a group that fostered a community of gay people in the city” was removed from the Missouri State Capitol and will be relocated to “a building at the Jefferson Landing State Historic Site.” It was only on display for a few days when apparently complaints and an illegitimate excuse (procedure for selecting what would be on display) prompted its removal. Missouri State Representative Brian Seitz is quoted as having said “that it would ‘cause division’ at a time when the country ‘needs unity.’”
Students could consider whether or not moving a book to a different section constitutes censorship. That was one suggestion made by Commissioner Del Shelstad in Wyoming at the Campbell County Public Library; simply move an LGBTQ book to the adult section. Residents there complained about LGBTQ books and displays. Commissioner Colleen Faber raised a pointed question: “Is it fair to expect a certain level of morality for our library’s children’s materials?” Libraries do not select or deselect items according to one religion’s standard of gender, which she mislabels as morality.
Those who argue that libraries should censor LGBTQ materials also miss Sabine Jean Dantus’s point about silencing other people’s lived experiences. Why should children of non-binary parents, for example, not be able to access credible, unbiased information about gender?
Why should their life experiences be deemed immoral in a public setting and their access to information limited? Not only that, but being exposed to diversity shows people that even though discrimination still occurs, it’s not inevitable that it continue.
Current attempts to limit intellectual freedom rights in the context of libraries and schools are based on mis- and disinformation rapidly spreading on social media. To counter that, let’s offer intellectual freedom programming throughout the year. Ensure that all displays feature diversity, not just during a special week or month. Make a poster featuring Access to Library Resources and Services for Minors: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights to enforce the idea that a patron’s age does not limit their rights to equitable access. Host Q&A sessions with credible speakers on issues such as anti-racist education and journalism. Share the Library Bill of Rights and discuss the historical contexts of its principles. These ideas will show patrons and students that intellectual freedom isn’t scary. Breaking through the faux fear is the first obstacle.
Jamie M. Gregory is a National Board Certified Teacher in Library Media working as the Upper School Librarian and journalism/newspaper teacher at Christ Church Episcopal School in Greenville, SC. She is the recipient of the 2021 Media Literacy Teacher Award from the National Association for Media Literacy Education.