A spate of policies banning books and tamping down teachings on race and gender proliferated nationwide in 2021 and 2022 — but are those rules actually legal? The American Civil Liberties Union has launched a multi-state effort to find out by challenging them in court.

The approach includes a mixture of lawsuits, public records requests and legal letters alleging the right-wing rules violate the First Amendment and other constitutional protections.

In Mississippi, a letter from the organization helped reverse a mayor’s decision to withhold $110,000 in funding from a local library until librarians removed LGBTQ literature. In Virginia, the ACLU urged a state court to dismiss a ban on the sale and distribution of the books Gender Queer and A Court of Mist and Fury — which it did. And in Florida, a lawsuit litigated by the organization seeks to throw out provisions of the state’s “Stop W.O.K.E.” law that infringe on college and university instructors’ long-established academic freedoms.

“These laws have absolutely no relationship to any legitimate pedagogical interest and, in fact, are purely partisan political tools,” said Emerson Sykes, ACLU staff attorney. “We focus on challenging these laws in court.”

To date, legislation limiting classroom discussion of race and gender has been proposed in 42 states and adopted in 17, according to an Education Week tracker. Many outlaw “divisive” topics and lessons that cause students to “​​feel discomfort, guilt, anguish” on account of their race or gender. Some explicitly ban the teaching of critical race theory, a graduate-level scholarly framework examining how racism is embedded in American institutions. The term has become a catch-all many Republicans use to describe teachings about systemic racism.

Right-wing, mostly white parent groups such as Moms for Liberty and Parents Defending Education have pushed for the bills, which have been supported almost exclusively by conservative politicians. Those who favor the restrictions broadly argue that classroom teachings about race can serve to divide students and give them a pessimistic view of the country’s history. They contend LGBTQ material can make students vulnerable to sexual predation, though those claims have not been substantiated, and should be under the purview of parents, not schools.

Simultaneous moves to ban books have also spread in response to parent activism, with roughly 1,600 challenges or removals of individual books in 2021-22, according to a count from the American Library Association. It’s more than a five-fold increase over 2020-21 and ​​represents “the highest number of attempted book bans since we began compiling these lists 20 years ago,” ALA President Patricia Wong said in an April press release.

So far, the ACLU has challenged classroom censorship efforts in 10 states, including three lawsuits against rules limiting teachings on race and gender.

Read the full article about fighting classroom censorship by Asher Lehrer-Small at The 74.