The concept of book banning isn’t anything new. In some instances, it’s older than the United States itself with the banning of alternative religion pamphlets going back into the 1650s. Starting in the 20th century, public schools became battlegrounds for parents and educators to debate between the social and educational value of books available to children in school libraries. Meaning, book banning used to be a rudimentary way for parents to argue with other parents about how controversial issues should be taught to children—if at all. Now, book banning has evolved into an instrument used by conservative politicians to push back against liberal ideologies. With the younger generation consuming news faster and easier access to the online sources, and the popularization that comes with it, this concept directly opposes the marketplace of ideas and restricts the ability of future voters to cultivate their own political beliefs.
Book Banning and the First Amendment
The First Amendment isn’t absolute, there are exceptions and limitations. In the context of book banning, state governments have control over the educational curriculum in public schools. Thus, local districts can censor books as parents challenge them or as the school board seems fit. This includes what book are and are not available in libraries. There are quite a few arguments surrounding book banning. On one hand, parents have the right to decide what their child is exposed to (including illicit subjects) and are able to petition the school board to remove controversial material. However, this might take away from what other parents want their children learn and the development of their personal ideology.
This is why public schools are of key interest. While some parents can choose private schools which teach certain values, public schools are open to any and everyone. This makes it incredibly difficult to honor the wishes of every parent. Popular reasons parents have challenged books from being taught in the past include issues with social norms, problematic behavior, language, sexual content, etc. Now, books containing narratives about sexual identity, gender orientation, and race are being targeted exponentially more. These topics should sound familiar because they are some of the key points of conflict between the major political parties in the United States.
Banning Books Faster
It’s not that politicians haven’t been involved with book banning in the past; it’s that the pace at which lawmakers are challenging books is faster than it has been in decades. The office of the American Library Association reported that they used to see just a few books challenged each year. Now, they are seeing an average of five books challenged per day. Between July of 2021 and June of 2022, 2,532 books have been banned from schools across the United States. So why are politicians getting involved? Because it’s a powerful political strategy. As the left moves for a more inclusive and diverse society in educational spaces, the right is simultaneously making moves to limit the information available to young students about controversial topics. Thus, public schools have become small battleground which replicate the debates happening on the national stage.
Why Ban Books?
Over the past few years, legislators have begun to pass laws restricting teaching topics. In the past year alone, these educational gag orders have increased 250%. For instance, North Carolina Bill HB 1067 aims to provide parents with a legal right to know about their student’s wellbeing, the age-appropriate instruction on reproductive health, and remedies for their concerns. This is one example out of hundreds where state legislators are trying to limit and monitor what subjects are taught in school. Sadly, educators are being put in the middle of a polarized fight between parents, the school board, and legislators. Over the past year, more than half of the states have banned at least one book in their districts.
However, what politicians haven’t considered is the overall effectiveness of book banning. Conservatives are afraid that children will be swayed by “potentially dangerous” content. There are some that say book banning is less important than it has been in the past thanks to the internet. This argument does have some merit. Often times students are still able to find the banned material online. There are even some libraries that removed banned books from shelves but still have them available for digital checkouts. Thus, keeping controversial values out of reach of children is a poor method of censorship as physically removing books from school poses no more than a minor obstacle to most students. However, not all students have free and unrestricted access to the internet. In reality, approximately eighty-one percent of fourth graders and eighty-eight percent of eighth graders have access to the internet at home. Almost a quarter of students do not have any access to online resources. Thus, books are the primary means of obtaining information. In low-income communities, banning books means there are less available book for students who are unable to gain knowledge elsewhere. This results in less informed youth and possibly less informed voters Book banning is counterproductive to conservative efforts not only because it is largely ineffective due to the internet but also because it causes a disservice to the future generations by limiting their ability to cultivate their own opinion.
How are Students Responding?
Politicians and parents possess the power to challenge books. But shouldn’t teenagers be able to decide what materials they read? When high school students graduate, they are considered adults with voting power. This begs the question of how our nation’s immediate future feels about the subject. The New York Times gave students the opportunity to respond.
Unsurprisingly, there were many students who had negative feelings about book banning. Some commented how they found it sad that knowledge was being intentionally excluded from the hands of youth. Others were alarmed because they weren’t even aware that books being banned in their schools. One pointed out the difficultly in balancing parent’s rights and access to information but in order for student to learn on their own, there needs to be access to all knowledge. Others went on to question the motives behind banning books. Fear of change and the inability of parents to question their own understand of controversial topics were cited. One pointed out that no matter the rationale, banning books would have consequences..
Perhaps the most notable consequence is that banning books actually popularizes them. For instance, a Tennessee school district banned a graphic novel published in the 1980s which sold approximately 1,110 copies per week in January 2022. After it was banned, more than 32,000 copies in one week. Banning puts a spotlight on the book and its content. For those who support the content, this censorship can act like a rallying cry for support and to publicize opposition to the ban.
The weaponization of book banning has had unintended consequences for conservative politicians. While there have been many books removed from shelves, they are still available to students online. And it’s a disservice to students without access to the internet as less books mean less informed voters. Finally, it has been shown that removing a book only popularizes it in stores.