Illinois has banned book bans, but activists say there’s more to be done to fight censorship

HB 2789, a first-of-its-kind legislation, will penalize institutions that ban books in response to the recent wave of book banning efforts by conservative lawmakers
Noah Berlatsky October 10, 2023

Illinois has banned book bans, but activists say there’s more to be done to fight censorship CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - JULY 13: A general view of atmosphere during MoveOn's national Banned Bookmobile tour launch at Sandmeyer's Bookstore on July 13, 2023 in Chicago, Illinois. MoveOn’s Banned Bookmobile is on a multistate tour to sound alarms on the rising wave of GOP book bans across the country. The Banned Bookmobile tour will distribute some of the most frequently banned books in some of the communities most impacted by the bans. (Photo by Daniel Boczarski/Getty Images for MoveOn)

Conservative lawmakers nationwide have unleashed an unprecedented effort to ban books, education, and discussion of racism and LGBTQIA+ issues. Florida is one of the most notorious examples of these efforts; the state’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, for instance, prohibits the teaching and discussion of gender identity or sexual orientation in kindergarten through third-grade classrooms. The state has also passed laws that severely limit instruction on the history and ongoing effects of racism as part of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ crusade against teaching about systemic racism and oppression in the U.S.

But Florida is hardly alone, and the issues don’t stop at state legislation. Emboldened local conservative groups are targeting libraries nationwide with requests for book removal. Data released in September by the American Library Association shows that over 1,900 books have been singled out for censorship in the first eight months of 2023, a 20% increase compared to the same period in 2022. Some of the books affected include Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye,” Maia Kobabe’s “Gender Queer: A Memoir,” and Ellen Hopkins’ “Tricks.” These attempts at book bans can be especially dangerous when backed by politicians—such as the case in Warren County, Virginia, where the county board threatened to defund Samuels Public Library if it did not remove challenged books.

In response to these efforts, activists in Illinois have fought for an innovative solution, helping to pass legislation that will withhold state funding from libraries that remove books because of partisan or personal disapproval. Signed into law in June, HB 2789 is essentially a ban on book bans.

The roots of this legislation began in January of this year when parents in the Chicago suburb of Riverside complained about Kobabe’s coming-of-age memoir “Gender Queer.” According to Illinois Library Association (ILA) executive director Cyndi Robinson, the challenge sparked much community interest and controversy. After a report in the local paper, Robinson said dozens of people showed up to the board meeting to keep the book on library shelves.

“Five people spoke against the book, and everyone else who spoke was in favor,” she said.

Robinson added that the meeting was especially effective because “high school and college students in the community who were still home from winter break came and talked about how important these resources were for them.”

“Community action can make a huge difference,” said Robinson.

Inspired by this community support, Illinois state Rep. Anne Stava-Murray, who represents Downers Grove, worked with then-newly elected Secretary of State Alexi Giannoulias—who is also the state librarian—to craft legislation to protect libraries and prevent capricious and bigoted bans.

Robinson said the ILA was also involved in developing the legislation early and advocated for linking funding to the adoption of the American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights. The document states, “Materials should not be excluded because of the origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation,” and “materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.”

“The Library Bill of Rights is actually in the standards for public libraries in Illinois,” Robinson said. “So I can’t say all [libraries in Illinois] have adopted it, but they should have.”

Illinois’ ban on book bans, which goes into effect on Jan. 1, 2024, has garnered national attention. In a heated Senate meeting in September, Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana claimed that Giannoulias didn’t have a solution to the controversies over book availability. Giannoulias responded, “we solved the problem in Illinois. We fixed it.”

Extremists responded to Illinois’ ban on book bans with a wave of terrorist threats. On the day of the Senate meeting in September, half a dozen libraries received bomb threats and had to close and evacuate. The Illinois State Library was also forced to close due to a bomb threat on Sept. 22.

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker called the threats “abhorrent” and “disgusting” and said the state would “continue to work diligently to combat and prosecute these acts of intimidation and intolerance.” Meanwhile, according to Robinson, the ILA has been working with local libraries to ensure staff is “getting training” and “reviewing training” so they know what to do in the event of a threat.

Robinson said the ILA is also working on creating materials “to encourage [the community] to support their library and let [library personnel] know that the community is behind them.”

ACLU Illinois spokesperson Ed Yohnka also emphasized that community support is crucial in preserving libraries and free speech.

“One of the things that we point out in [ACLU] material is that the obligation and the role of pushing back against these bans is not going to come just from the ACLU,” Yohnka said. “It’s not going to come just from journalists, it’s not going to come just from leaders at school boards or library boards. It’s going to come from the public. And frankly, you know, we can’t just show up when there’s an attempt to ban books. We need to be involved and engaged long before that ever happens.”

Yohnka also emphasized that, while legislation matters, “we don’t think it’s a substitute for people being involved at the local level.” To effectively fight for the preservation of free speech, Yohnka said people need to show up at libraries, go to board meetings, and be on library boards.

Though Illinois’ recent legislation shows how community members, local organizations, and legislators can work together to push back against censorship, more is needed to fight back against conservatives’ continued multi-front assault on freedom of speech.

“Some of us who have not for a number of years frequented our public library,” Yohnka said, “we need to be there.”