By Jae Moore
“Banned books? What does that mean?” Rep. Aaron Bean (R-FL) asked, as he presided over a House subcommittee hearing on October 19. Rep. Bean claimed book bans are a “flash in the culture war,” while inviting three speakers who have been fomenting the war.
- Lindsey Smith, a Maryland chapter chair for Moms for Liberty. Enthusiastically introducing Smith was Rep. Mary Miller (R-IL), who quoted Hitler at a rally the day before the January 6 insurrection. An Indiana chapter of Moms for Liberty has also elevated a Hitler quote.
- Max Eden, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank which has spread disinformation about LGBTQ people and supported anti-LGBTQ policy and politicians.
- Megan Degenfelder, superintendent of Public Instruction for the Wyoming Department of Education, who has appeared and associated with Moms for Liberty founders.
- Jonathan Friedman, PEN America’s director of Free Expression and Education programs, was the sole panelist advocating for the freedom to read and against censorship.
The gaslighting on “what is a book ban” began immediately in Rep. Bean’s opening comments.
“Removing a book from a library shelf is not akin to pouring gasoline on it and setting it ablaze,” Rep. Bean said, ignoring that removing a book and creating barriers to its access is, in fact, a way of eliminating its existence.
“How in the world did we get here?” Lindsey Smith, Moms for Liberty chapter chair asked, neglecting to note her organization’s key role in challenging books by and about LGBTQ people and books about race and racism. Smith then insisted that book-banning groups like hers are not targeting LGBTQ titles (they are), nor are their actions politically charged (they are).
@kathyellendavis “We’re not banning books!” Then calling for actual book bans. #momsforliberty #loudouncountyva #bannedbooks #bannedbooksweek ♬ original sound – KE knows books!
During his remarks, PEN America’s Jonathan Friedman delivered a powerful rebuttal to Smith’s claim. “If on Monday a student has access to a book, and on Tuesday she doesn’t as a result of a challenge over that book’s content, ideas, or themes, then that book has been banned,” he noted. “The circumstances surrounding such decisions are rooted in efforts to restrict access to information and ideas implicating students’ First Amendment rights. In our society, the loss of First Amendment rights, even minimally, is injurious.”
Thank you @jonfreadom for providing the larger context around book bans at the hearing this morning. @PENamerica it’s especially ironic as librarians gather at @aasl to share the amazing projects school librarians do to engage readers. https://t.co/400srvegdJ pic.twitter.com/dgLeSZby6x
— FReadom (@FReadomFighters) October 19, 2023
The American Enterprise Institute’s Max Eden suggested that “books aren’t being banned, but many parents prefer that school libraries not stock pornographic materials.” In fact, supermajorities of parents have clearly stated they do not wish schools to be political battlegrounds, and reject efforts to ban books. Eden went on to claim, “in common usage, banned means ‘made unavailable,’ and of course the most banned book, Gender Queer, is still available on Amazon,” forgetting that books on Amazon cost money to buy, while books are free to borrow in a library. Eden inaccurately noted that “a book can be both banned and freely available to students.”
As the book ban definition discussion turned to content, the panelists further revealed what motivates their book banning and targeting, especially of LGBTQ stories and, by extension, LGBTQ people. “When the Washington Post examined over a thousand review requests made by parents, less than seven percent said ‘LGBT’ without also using the word ‘sexual,’ although those book requests may have contained words like ‘pornographic’ or ‘obscene,’” he began. “And that’s what this issue is really about: the provision of sexually explicit material to children by public employees.” Eden’s summation statement is inaccurate. The mere presence of LGBTQ people does not equal “sexually explicit.” The Washington Post noted: “The second most common reason cited for pulling LGBTQ texts was an explicit desire to prevent children from reading about lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, nonbinary and queer lives.”
Notably absent from the hearing was the voice of any student, the group most affected by book bans and the harmful messaging that accompanies them. Committee Ranking Member Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) said, “We don’t have students testifying today, Mr. Chairman, but their voices should be heard.” She then shared several examples of students who have spoken out against book censorship. Said one student from Maine: “As a teenager I am still trying to find my way into this world; I want to know as many other viewpoints as possible so I know my thoughts are my own and not just a product of a limited amount of information.”
“Censorship laws are being enacted by extreme MAGA politicians under the pretext of parental rights when in reality it’s a coordinated… well-funded, vocal minority of parents and conservative organizations pushing their… agenda on others”—@RepBonamici. https://t.co/ihVuUmqIcv
— PEN America (@PENamerica) October 20, 2023
In her closing remarks, Bonamici quoted author Judy Blume, whose books have been the target of frequent censorship efforts over the decades. “I believe that censorship grows out of fear,” Blume said. “And, because fear is contagious, some parents are easily swayed. Book banning satisfies their need to feel in control of their children’s lives. This fear is often disguised as moral outrage. They want to believe that if their children don’t read about it, they won’t know about it. And if they don’t know about it, it won’t happen.”
While parents play a critical role in their children’s education, Friedman cautioned “we can — and we must — distinguish between a single parent raising a concern and the current campaign to disrupt public education writ large.” Not every title is appropriate for every child, he added, but “the unifying principle is that a wide variety of choice means kids and families can determine what’s relevant to them.”
Censorship on intellectual freedom is not about “protecting kids,” it is about efforts to isolate and marginalize some kids, overwhelmingly, LGBTQ youth and all youth of color. Book bans are not about “parents rights,” they are about some parents who want to dictate and decide for other parents what their children can read. Parents’ rights should include the views and rights of all parents, including the vast majority who object to book banning and efforts to censor accurate history.
Let’s all get on the same page: Removing and restricting books and information is censorship, it is book banning, and it is reviving a harmful decades-old campaign against LGBTQ people, now turned against the growing number of out youth, in a failing effort to diminish their voices and visibility.
“ALA wholeheartedly agrees with today’s witnesses, who when asked by Rep. Suzanne Bonamici whether they believe diverse perspectives and materials are essential to any library, all responded with a resounding yes.” — ALA President Emily Drabinski 1/3https://t.co/zUYOYONHHh
— American Library Association (@ALALibrary) October 20, 2023