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This op-ed by Suzanne Nossel was previously published on April 20, 2022 in the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Reprinted with permission.
An alarming trend is gaining strength in dozens of states across the country. School districts are banishing books from classrooms and library shelves at rates unprecedented in modern history.
Book bans in public schools are not a new phenomenon. Titles such as The Catcher in the Rye, Of Mice and Men, and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings have stirred controversy for decades. But the current wave of book bans stands out for its sweep, velocity, and underlying motivations. Never before have we witnessed so many books banned with such frequency as part of a coordinated national campaign.
This month, PEN America, the organization I run, released Banned in the USA, a report documenting the breadth of the problem and spotlighting the most frequently challenged authors, books, and subject areas, along with the regions where book bans have spread most rapidly. The report found that 86 school districts in 26 states have instituted more than 1,500 book bans in just the last nine months.
In Texas alone, 16 districts are responsible for instituting more than 700 book bans. In several states, elected officials are introducing legislation to create new committees and policies to make purging disfavored volumes easier, faster, and more routine. These bans disproportionately target traditionally underrepresented narratives in literature for children and young adults, censoring books by or about people of color, LGBTQ individuals, and members of religious minorities.
The bans fly in the face of the First Amendment and represent a dangerous affront to students’ freedom to learn. They are the result of concerted campaigns orchestrated by organizations that have seized on education as a wedge issue and are aiming to rally support by creating a climate of intimidation in our schools.
Parental and citizen debate about what is taught in public schools is perfectly appropriate. Established procedures promoted by organizations such as the American Library Association and the National Coalition Against Censorship offer a roadmap for those genuinely concerned that a particular book is inappropriate. But antibook campaigns waged by political advocacy groups and enacted into legislation stifle rather than foster such healthy civic engagement. Book bans also cast a chill in the classroom, forcing teachers to consider whether what they say, display, or teach may run afoul of political edicts.
Foundations that support education, democracy, and culture have an essential role to play in defending students’ First Amendment rights, upholding the place of books in our culture, and defending public schools as citadels of democracy. Yet these bans fall outside the target zone for most traditional grant makers.
Democracy donors, for example, are rightly focused on voting rights. But they must also recognize how the assault on pluralism and civic life is reaching beyond the ballot box to corrode the foundations of citizenship.
Education donors have sometimes regarded politically charged issues swirling outside of classroom walls as beyond the scope of their work. But the last year has made clear that access to an equal education depends not just on equitable resources, but on the fortification of the freedoms that render the classroom truly welcoming to all students, regardless of how they look or identify.
Donors who support cultural activities have typically funneled their dollars to the visual and performing arts, leaving books and literature an afterthought. But books are the lifeblood of a creative society and thriving culture, and current book-banning battles are a powerful testament to just how much books matter.
Philanthropic investment aimed at halting book-ban efforts should be channeled to three critical areas: research, mobilization, and civic education.
Research and documentation. With the notable exception of the American Library Association’s important annual summary of book challenges, book bans were until recently thinly documented. But such research is critical to building public awareness about the problem and mobilizing efforts to fight back. PEN America’s recent report was the first of its kind to document which books are being banned and how political pressures have affected decision making at the local level. The report findings were highlighted in media coverage and a congressional hearing this month, demonstrating the importance of solid information and data to drive the debate.
Community mobilization. An American Library Association survey showed that more than seven in 10 voters — including large majorities of Republicans, Democrats, and independents — oppose efforts to remove books from public libraries. But their views have been lost in the moral panic gripping many school districts nationwide.
Nonprofits with national reach need resources to equip students, parents, teachers, and librarians with the information and tools to respond effectively. In Pennsylvania, book-ban opponents successfully overturned a school district’s “pause” on the teaching of the novel Persepolis in an honors English class for high-school freshmen. Organizations including EveryLibrary, Red, Wine and Blue, the National Coalition Against Censorship, and PEN America are witnessing surging demand for training, fact sheets, media outreach, and prep sessions ahead of school board meetings.
Many of these groups are relatively small and accustomed to a measured pace in terms of responding to book challenges. To meet the demands of the moment, they need additional resources to mobilize and equip their members as pro-book activists.
One way philanthropists can support such work is by extending their grant making into the individual school districts where groups such as the Florida Freedom to Read Project and Texans for the Right to Read are waging local battles over censorship. PEN America’s local and regional chapters are currently powered entirely by PEN members serving as volunteers. Greater philanthropic support would allow all these groups to hire more staff, mount more forceful advocacy, and nurture long-term constituencies to help defend against encroachments on free speech.
The current wave of book bans also raises pressing legal questions. The controlling Supreme Court precedent on the issue, Island Trees School District v. Pico (1982), was a sharply split decision that leaves numerous unanswered questions about when and how school districts may decide to limit access to books. Advocates will need more support to mount carefully thought-out challenges that help to elaborate constitutional protections for free-speech rights and equality in the classroom.
Foundations that aren’t restricted from supporting advocacy and lobbying need to arm activists with the tools to engage in statehouses and mobilize constituents to push back against legislation that encourages book banning and related measures. That includes Florida’s so-called Don’t Say Gay law and the numerous copycat bills it has spawned. Public umbrage at book bans needs to make itself heard and felt, reshaping the political calculus for those who are stoking censorship.
Civic education. The evaporation of civic education about issues such as the importance of the First Amendment has resulted in a younger generation that often views bedrock free-speech protections as a smokescreen for hatred. But through PEN America’s youth-education programs, I’ve seen that students, whether progressive or conservative, can still be captivated by the power of free speech as a catalyst for creativity and a bulwark against abuses of power. Youth activism and affinity organizations, such as the Georgia Youth Justice Coalition and Voters of Tomorrow, have an important role to play in helping students understand why free-speech protections are essential to the struggles they care about.
The fights for democracy and equality in America will be won or lost in our schools where the values of a rising generation are shaped. Philanthropists determined to safeguard the laws that underlie the nation’s most important ideals need to fortify those waging these battles in classrooms and libraries — the portals through which young people come to know and understand the world they live in
Suzanne Nossel is chief executive officer of PEN America and the author of “Dare to Speak: Defending Free Speech for All.”