A Senate Committee Takes Up School Book Wars, Complete With Sharp Partisan Divisions

The heated Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, chaired by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., with testimony from Illinois Secretary of State Alexi Giannoulias, put on display the national clash over library book bans.
By Mark Walsh — September 12, 2023

A Senate Committee Takes Up School Book Wars, Complete With Sharp Partisan Divisions

The national debate over book challenges in schools and libraries reached the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, with moments of rancor similar to those found at school board meetings across the country.

“I understand and respect that parents may choose to limit what their children read, especially at a younger age,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., the chairman of the committee. “But no parent should have the right to tell another parent’s child what they can and cannot read in school or at home. Every student deserves access to books that reflect their experiences and help them better understand who they are.”

Durbin called the hearing to highlight a new Illinois law that would withhold state grants from libraries unless they adopt a policy protecting books and other resources from being “proscribed, removed, or restricted” based on “partisan or doctrinal disapproval.”

“This ‘Right to Read’ legislation will help remove the pressure that librarians have tragically had to endure over the last couple years,” Illinois Secretary of State Alexi Giannoulias, a Democrat who is also the state librarian, said before the committee.

Republicans on the panel, and their witnesses, questioned the attention being paid to the issue and whether books were actually being “banned.”

“About this hearing—what is our role here?” said Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, the ranking Republican. “What am I supposed to do? Am I suppose to take over every school board in the country and veto their decisions?”

Graham added, “To all the people out there who think there are things being pushed in the schools that go over the line, you’re absolutely right.”

What is a book ban?

Max Eden, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a Republican witness, said “books aren’t being banned” because even controversial titles such as Gender Queer, the LGBTQ memoir by Maia Kobabe, remain available for sale and on many library book shelves.

Eden said the media has wrongly accepted the expansive definition of “ban” offered by PEN America, the First Amendment advocacy group, in its 2022 report “Banned in the U.S.A.”

“If a book has been taken off the shelves, reviewed, and then put back on the shelves it has, according to PEN, been ‘banned,’” said Eden, who co-wrote a report countering the PEN study. “If a school adds a parental permission requirement to a book, it has, according to PEN, been ‘banned.’ If a book is moved to the guidance counselor’s office, it has, according to PEN, been ‘banned.’”

Emily J.M. Knox, an associate professor of information sciences at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign and a Democratic witness, acknowledged that the term “book banning” was imprecise.

“I believe the term ‘book challenges’ more precisely describes the various actions that are taking place around the country,” Knox said. “A challenge occurs when an individual or group asks to redact, remove, restrict, or relocate materials within libraries and schools.”

She said “materials in public institutions have always been challenged, but we have never seen anything like the current number of cases.”

Challenges to books addressing race or LGBTQ+ issues “flatten the people’s humanity,” Knox said. “People are always more than their sexual or gender identity.”

Nicole Neily, the president of Parents Defending Education and a GOP witness, said that many books are simply not age appropriate for children who have access to them.

“School boards across the country cut the mics on parents who read passages from these books, stating, ‘This is inappropriate, there are children in the room,’” Neily said. “Yet those same books are being provided to children in schools.”

Sexually explicit or honest reckoning with humanity?

Along that line, Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., read sexually explicit passages about oral and anal sex from Gender Queer and All Boys Aren’t Blue, an LGBTQ+ “memoir-manifesto” by George M. Johnson. Kennedy then asked Giannoulias whether he believed only librarians should be allowed to decide whether young people could read such passages.

“With all due respect, senator, the words you spoke are disturbing, especially coming out of your mouth,” said Giannoulias during a testy verbal exchange with Kennedy. “We’re not advocating for kids to read porn. … We’re advocating for random parents not to have the ability, under the guise of keeping kids safe, to challenge the world view of every single manner on these issues.”

Cameron Samuels, a student who formed a group to battle book challenges at their high school in Katy, Texas, (and a Democratic witness), told Kennedy that what the senator views as “sexual” material “is synonymous with LGBTQ identity.”

“Parents should be working with students and educators to make decisions” on the availability of some of these books, said Samuels, a 2022 high school graduate who now attends Brandeis University. They verbally tussled with Kennedy over the LGBTQ book passages.

“All Boys Aren’t Blue is about sexual abuse. It’s not erotic,” Samuels said. “Students who do not read books like All Boys Aren’t Blue cannot learn what is appropriate. They cannot learn about abuse.”

Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., said, “There is no one on this committee who believes that children should have access to materials that are inappropriate for their age. … This to me is about something deeper that is going on in the American culture right now, and that’s really troubling.”

“I actually think there is a problem when we are attacking our own history, and trying to Disney-ify it, as opposed to celebrating what was a rough, difficult, uncomfortable, messy American history,” Booker said. “There is some negativity when young people are learning history that is bereft of the complications and difficulties of race issues, of gender issues, of LGBTQ issues.”