By Hannah Schaffer, Editor-in-Chief
Photo courtesy of pixabay.com
Book bans are sweeping the nation at school boards across the country are prohibiting books from classrooms “due to their sexually explicit or otherwise controversial content.”
During the 2021-2022 academic year, PEN America’s Index of School Book Bans reported 2,532 instances of books being banned, affecting 1,648 book titles, 1,261 different authors, 290 illustrators, and 18 translators. Of these banned books, 41% contained LGBTQ+ themes and 40% contained protagonists or prominent secondary characters of color.An estimated 40% of bans listed in the Index are connected to proposed or enacted legislation, such as Florida’s Parental Rights in Education Bill, which is also known as the “Don’t Say Gay” Bill, and House Bill 1467, which requires that books be approved by a school district employee who holds a valid educational media specialist certificate, which has been especially burdensome to teachers who now have go through all the books in their classroom and could face felony charges if they knowingly distribute “egregious” materials.
PEN America defines a school book ban as “any action taken against a book based on its content and as a result of parent or community challenges, administrative decisions, or in response to direct or threatened action by lawmakers or other government officials, that leads to a previously accessible book being either completely removed from accessibility to students, or where access to a book is restricted or diminished.”
Since March 2022, there have been various “educational gag orders” passed. Educational gag orders are defined as “state legislative efforts to restrict teaching about topics such as race, gender, American history, and LGBTQ+ identities in K-12 and higher education.” In 2022, proposed educational orders increased 250 percent compared to 2021. 137 gag orders were proposed across 36 different states. However, while over 100 gag orders were proposed, only seven orders were signed into law.
PEN America also noted that bills introduced in 2022, more frequently targeted higher education. 39 percent of bills in 2022 targeted higher education, compared with only 30 percent the previous year.
On May 19, 2023, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights released a memo declaring a resolution with Forsyth County Schools in Georgia regarding whether “the removal of books from its school libraries created a hostile environment for students based on sex, race, color, or national origin under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”
Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibition “discrimination based on sex in education programs and activities that receive federal financial assistance.” Title VI was enacted as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and “prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin in programs and activities receiving federal financial assistance.”
The school district received complaints from parents and community members about students having access to books that they “deemed inappropriate because they contained sexually explicit content,” and was asked by one parent group to “shelve LGBTQI+ books separately.” However, the school was met with resistance from students after “communications at the district school board meetings conveyed the impression that books were being screened to exclude diverse authors and characters, including people who are LGBTQI+ and authors who are not white.” These concerns let to the Office for Civil Rights receiving a complaint alleging that the district’s library book removal had created “a racially and sexually hostile environment for students.” Ultimately, the Office for Civil Rights found that communications at the board meeting regarding the book screening processes may have created a hostile environment and that the district’s screening process was not sufficient to ameliorate a racially and sexually hostile environment.However, the Office for Civil Rights did ultimately conclude that the district did not violate Title IX or Title VI.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the state of New Jersey is considering legislation that would “require public schools and public libraries to adopt policies that strictly prohibit ‘banning or restricting access to certain books.’” If a school or library did not comply with the policies, it would be subject to the withholding of state aid. This legislation is sponsored by state Senator Andrew Zwicker.
Zwicker has noticed the increased efforts to restrict access to certain books, and “more than 80% of book banning effort target LGBTQ+ themes or people of color. Zwicker posted on Twitter, stating, “It is time to make NJ a state where book banning and the censorship of ideas is banned.” However, Zwicker has been met with some pushback as some feel that Zwicker’s legislation would infringe on parental rights.
Although states such as New Jersey are taking measures to combat book bans, book bans remain at an all-time high in the United States and it is unclear whether they will be slowing anytime soon.
 Melanie Chuh, Book bans through the eyes of local educators, Cavalier Daily (May 24, 2023) https://www.cavalierdaily.com/article/2023/05/book-bans-through-the-eyes-of-local-educators
 Banned in the USA: The Growing Movement to Censor Books in Schools, PEN America (last visited May 21, 2022) https://pen.org/report/banned-usa-growing-movement-to-censor-books-in-schools/
 Banned in the USA: Rising School Book Bans Threaten Free Expression and Students’ First Amendment Rights (April 2022) https://pen.org/banned-in-the-usa/
 Banned in the USA: The Growing Movement to Censor Books in Schools, PEN America (last visited May 24, 2023) https://pen.org/report/banned-usa-growing-movement-to-censor-books-in-schools/
 Press Office, U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights Resolved Investigation of the Removal of Library Books in Forsyth County Schools in George (May 19. 2023) https://www.ed.gov/news/press-releases/us-department-educations-office-civil-rights-resolves-investigation-removal-library-books-forsyth-county-schools-georgia
 Sex Discrimination: Overview of the Law, U.S. Department of Education (last visited May 24, 2023) https://www2.ed.gov/policy/rights/guid/ocr/sexoverview.html#:~:text=Title%20IX%20of%20the%20Education,that%20receive%20federal%20financial%20assistance.
 Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, The United States Department of Justice (last visited May 24, 2023) https://www.justice.gov/crt/fcs/TitleVI
 U.S. Department of Education, Supra.
 Ayana Archie & Bill Chappell, A Georgia school district’s book bans may have caused a hostile environment, feds say (May 23, 2023) https://www.npr.org/2023/05/23/1177636289/georgia-school-book-bans-may-hostile-environment
 Eric Scott, Libraries that Ban Books Could Face Sanctions From NJ, New Jersey 101.5 (May 24, 2023) https://nj1015.com/libraries-that-ban-books-could-face-sanctions-from-nj/