A Senate hearing on book bans and censorship on Tuesday spotlighted the growing phenomenon in America and highlighted a partisan split on the issue, with Democrats decrying censorship as Republicans and rightwing activists push for many works to be taken out of schools and libraries, claiming it should be parents’ rights to do so.
Many of the most commonly banned books deal with topics such as racism, sexuality and gender identity. Conservatives also argue that some books, many exploring queer identity and LGBTQ+ themes, include sexually explicit content inappropriate for students. School librarians opposing such book bans have been attacked and harassed.
Other books that have long been parts of school curriculums have also been challenged after complaints that they contained racist stereotypes, such as Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird, which also includes a discussion of rape.
Between July and December 2022, the non-profit PEN America recorded nearly 1,500 instances of individual book bans, which it broadly defines as when books are deemed “off-limits” for students in school libraries or classrooms, or when books are removed during an investigation to determine if there should be any restrictions.
“Instead of inheriting a debate over what more can be done with and for our libraries, I was confronted with a book-banning movement upon taking office,” testified Alexi Giannoulias, Illinois’s secretary of state since January who also serves as the state librarian, on Tuesday.
“Our libraries have become targets by a movement that disingenuously claims to pursue freedom, but is instead promoting authoritarianism. Authoritarian regimes ban books, not democracies,” Giannoulias said.
Democratic lawmakers and education experts raised alarm bells over the rise in banned books.
“Let’s be clear, efforts to ban books are wrong, whether they come from the right or the left,” said Dick Durbin, the judiciary committee chair and Democratic senator of Illinois. “In the name of protecting students, we’re instead denying these students an opportunity to learn about different people and difficult subjects.”
Meanwhile, Republicans have widely backed the growing number of conservative activists seeking more control over school curriculums, including books – but also policies such as transgender students’ eligibility to use bathrooms – in the name of “parents’ rights”.
“To all the parents out there who believe there’s a bunch of stuff in our schools being pushed on your children that go over the line, you’re absolutely right,” said Lindsey Graham, the committee’s top Republican.
Graham briefly derailed the hearing, diverting the conversation to border security and migration, saying that fixing “Biden’s border crisis” should be the committee’s biggest priority.
“The book issue is a parental awareness issue. It is not partisan to assert that children do better when their families know what’s going on in their lives,” testified Nicole Neily, the president of the conservative non-profit Parents Defending Education.
According to its website, the group opposes “activists” who have sought to “impose ideologically driven curriculum with a concerning and often divisive emphasis on students’ group identities: race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation and gender”.
Arguing that parents and institutions should have the right to ban books containing sexually explicit content, Max Eden, a research fellow at the conservative thinktank American Enterprise Institute, read aloud a short passage recounting the author’s experience with child molestation from the book All Boys Aren’t Blue, a memoir about growing up Black and queer that is one of the most banned books.
The Louisiana senator John Kennedy also read aloud explicit passages from two of the most-banned books, All Boys Aren’t Blue and Gender Queer, during the hearing.
“Is this OK for kids?” said Eden. “Judging by the thoughts made by the media, NGOs and some Democratic politicians, it seems there is a politically significant contingent that believes this is all actually very good for kids. But personally, I’m not at all troubled by the fact that some moms believe that this isn’t appropriate, and that some school boards agree.”
But Democratic lawmakers maintain that banning books restricts children’s ability to think for themselves, and the information access researcher Emily Knox, an associate professor at the University of Illinois, testified that books can help change a reader’s attitude toward difference, adding that campaigns to censor books were unconstitutional.
“Of course there are books that are not age appropriate. But that’s what being a parent is all about – doing your best to keep an eye on what your children read and what they consume,” said Giannoulias.
“No one is advocating for sexually explicit content to be available in an elementary school library or in the children’s section of a library,” said Durbin. “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.”