This week’s roundup shows three troubling trends:
- Book banners are following a familiar, increasingly violent trajectory. At least 10 libraries faced bomb threats over the last weeks, similar to the targeting of children’s hospitals and health care providers last year.
- Book banners continue to be few and fringe, but with absurdly outsized reach. A new report shows 600 of 1,100 book complaints in Florida since last July originated from two people, a teacher in Escambia County, and the 57-year-old Florida chapter founder of the extremist group “No Left Turn in Education.”
- Extremists might be wising up to the fact that book bans are deeply and broadly unpopular, though they’re still trying to do it. There are now reports about districts using methods normally used to remove old or damaged books to target current books about LGBTQ people, race and abortion, and board members accessing school libraries to scope out shelves without prior permission, using flashlights and false pretenses.
Here’s a brief recap:
Iowa, Illinois, California: Libraries Facing Bomb Threats
Book Riot reported last week about seven libraries in the Chicago suburbs receiving bomb threats, as well as two bomb threats at an Oklahoma school district and a threat against a Davis, California, public library.
“Several of those libraries received not just one bomb threat, but several over the course of the week,” Book Riot notes.
This week: more threats – Iowa City Public Library; the Vernon Area Public Library in Lincolnshire, Illinois; the Wilmette Public Library and the Park Ridge Public Library each reported a second bomb threat in a week. In Davis, California, the FBI is now investigating after the public library received its third bomb threat in a week that included anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and began when the library determined that a Moms for Liberty chapter could not use the library’s facilities for a speaker program because it would not comply with the library’s code of conduct.
Bomb threats are a tactic used by extremists and encouraged by extremist social media, including campaigns last year that targeted 24 children’s hospitals and providers in 21 states.
Florida: Escambia County Public Schools Hides Unreviewed Books
To comply with Florida HB 1069, which grants anyone the ability to object to books, Escambia County Public Schools’ media specialists recommended concealing unreviewed books, including plastering library shelves with black paper.
“Now it seems like the district is intentionally disguising what is actually going on,” Georgia Clarkson Smith said. “They’re just straight up masking what’s actually happening — It’s deeply unsettling.”
Clarkson Smith says lawmakers and groups like “Moms for Liberty” falsely push book bans as “parental choice” without considering her choices as a parent to have books accessible.
Florida: Two People Responsible for 600 Book Complaints
The Tampa Bay Times reported approximately 600 of the 1,100 book complaints that cropped up in Florida since last July have originated from two individuals: Vicki Baggett, an Escambia County high school teacher, and Bruce Friedman, who founded No Left Turn in Education’s Florida chapter. No Left Turn’s extremism includes spreading disinformation and racist rhetoric to protest teaching about slavery and racism, before turning its sights on LGBTQ books.
“We have probably spent more resources on Bruce than anyone else in the history of the school district,” Roger Dailey, Clay County’s assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, told the Tampa Bay Times. Dailey said Friedman contacts the district nearly every day, including twice while Dailey was on the phone with the Times.
Friedman’s objections have included a children’s picture book featuring the cartoon character Arthur. Baggett’s objections include protesting the picture book And Tango Makes Three, which tells the real-life story of two male penguins raising a chick together. The Times’ investigation noted exact quotes in Baggett’s complaints also appeared in a Moms for Liberty member webpage targeting LGBTQ-inclusive books.
A @TB_Times analysis of #Florida school district reports to the state on #book challenges shows that the majority of districts got no formal objections, and of those that did, the majority came from two people in two districts. via @IanJHodgson https://t.co/ffbFXhwjW2
— Jeffrey S. Solochek (@JeffSolochek) August 24, 2023
Escambia County’s school board asked a federal judge to end a lawsuit filed in May by PEN America, Penguin Random House, LGBTQ authors and ally parents. The lawsuit noted the district’s removal of titles by LGBTQ authors and people of color violates the First Amendment (freedom of speech) and the 14th Amendment (the Equal Protection clause). Placing a temporary stay on the lawsuit, “the judge found ‘numerous reasons’ why the suit ‘may not proceed past the pleading stage.’”
Colorado: One Parent Pushes Four LGBTQ Book Bans (titles returned to library shelves)
A parent and founder of a Christian men’s group sought to ban four LGBTQ-inclusive books in Douglas County, Colorado, libraries: This Book is Gay, by Juno Dawson, Jack of Hearts (and Other Parts), by L.C. Rosen, All Boys Aren’t Blue, by George M. Johnson, and The Hips on the Drag Queen Go Swish, Swish, Swish, by Lil Miss Hot Mess.
Speaking with Denver’s ABC affiliate, library system executive director Bob Pasicznyuk refuted the book banner’s challenge that the books promote a ‘destructive homosexual lifestyle’: [this] is not an item which I can opine on. It’s outside the boundaries of what we, as a public library, would make a judgment about.” In rejecting the appeal, Pasicznyuk noted that “the books meet guidelines, they are available at national bookstores and there are programs that allow for guided exposure to book collections.”
The founder of a conservative men’s group wants the Douglas County Libraries Board of Trustees to ban four books with LGBTQ+ themes because he believes they promote a hypersexualized lifestyle to children. https://t.co/wVHTlA07yk
— The Denver Post (@denverpost) August 26, 2023
Texas: Censorship in Secret
An investigation by KHOU in Houston found that Klein Independent School District, which serves more than 50,000 students in Harris County, misled voters about the number of books it pulled from school shelves. While the district claims to have “removed only one [book] in two school years,” they may have used a process called “deaccessioning” to dispose of 3,000 books dating back to 2020.
Klein ISD also removed at least 67 titles from all its libraries after they were banned or challenged elsewhere, KHOU reported. The Texas American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter to the district last year, writing, “Klein ISD has disappeared books from its libraries—it has secretly removed dozens of books from its shelves,” a “violation of the First Amendment, the Texas Constitution and Klein ISD’s own policy.”
In an equally sneaky move, two individuals were caught rifling through the library at Granbury High School, southwest of Dallas-Fort Worth. According to The Daily Beast, Karen Lowery, who serves on the board of the Granbury Independent School District, showed her school board identification to the school’s front-desk clerk. Lowery and a companion, Carolyn Reeves, who was granted visitor access to the cafeteria to participate with Lowery in a charitable event for disadvantaged students, instead entered the darkened library and began snapping pictures of books.
— michael daly (@MichaelDalynyc) August 24, 2023
Lowery and Reeves were spotted by an assistant principal, and falsely claimed to have received authorization from the school’s principal and superintendent. Last week, the district’s school board voted 5-2 to censure Lowery, but The Dallas Morning News reports it “effectively served as a public reprimand” and that “the board has no power to ask or compel Lowery to resign.”
The Granbury Independent School District in Texas censured trustee Karen Lowery, who allegedly inspected books in a school library for over an hour this month. https://t.co/rMmMX4z9ol
— The Washington Post (@washingtonpost) August 25, 2023
Iowa: Mason City Community School District uses ChatGPT to Aid in Book Removal
Iowa’s ongoing struggles to comply with Senate File 496 (Iowa’s version of Don’t Say LGBTQ) has led the Mason City Community School District to use ChatGPT to determine which books are “age appropriate.”
The review process includes providing the AI chatbot with “lists of commonly challenged books,” which are then integrated into “a master list of books that should be reviewed.” So far, this has resulted in the examination of 42 titles, 19 of which have been banned. Included among the titles was the 1990 nonfiction sports novel, Friday Night Lights which, as author Buzz Bissinger noted, does not contain an “explicit description of a sexual act.” Following review by the district’s Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction Bridgette Exman, the book was returned to school shelves last week.
PopSci ran their own test on ChatGPT, providing it with the prompt, “Do any of the following books or book series contain explicit or sexual scenes?” The publication’s results contradicted those provided by the district, with only four titles being flagged as containing “explicit or sexual content.”
ChatGPT itself cast doubt on its ability to appropriately review books.
We asked ChatGPT is it was a good idea to use it to determine which books should be banned from a school, they way Mason City did. It’s response? Pretty much, “no, not appropriate.” pic.twitter.com/2Gn6uMbFO6
— ACLU of Iowa (@ACLUiowa) August 16, 2023
You can help alert your local school boards to these trends, and download templates to help your community fight back against book bans, via GLAAD’s Community Response toolkit.