States begin to push back on book bans – by banning them

As a record number of school districts face bans on certain books and lawmakers enact measures that limit what can be taught about race and sexual identity in the classroom, some states are moving to counter the measures with laws that prohibit banning books.

Last month, Minnesota became the latest state to implement restrictions on banning books from public libraries, including those in K-12 public schools and colleges.

Minnesota joins Illinois and Maryland, which passed a similar measure in April. The laws also follow other efforts to push back on book bans in school districts in states such as Florida

There were more than 4,300 book bans across 23 states and 52 public school districts from July 2023 to December 2023, according to a report from PEN America, a nonprofit organization that fights to protect free speech and expression.

While efforts to censor books have persisted throughout history, the American Library Association has said the number of titles targeted for censorship reached “the highest levels ever documented” by the organization last year.

A new law creates ‘uniformity’ in Minnesota

The uptick in book challenges across the US have been spearheaded by the so-called “parental rights movement” and by conservative groups who claim certain books about race and gender identity are being used to “indoctrinate” children.

Efforts to ban these books have permeated public libraries and school board meetings in various states, including in Minnesota where parents, students and free speech groups have clashed over what materials and books are deemed appropriate in K-12 public schools.

Although a small number of books have been banned in Minnesota, dozens of books were challenged across the state in 2023, according to the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom.

In Carver County, Minnesota, parents clashed over whether “Gender Queer: A Memoir” – a book that is frequently challenged and was the most banned book during a recent 18-month period, according to PEN America – should remain on the shelves.

The Carver County Library Board ultimately denied the request to remove the book, according to CNN affiliate WCCO.

Last month, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, a Democrat, signed into law a measure prohibiting the banning or removal of “a book or other material based solely on its viewpoint or the messages, ideas, or opinions it conveys.”

The law allows book challenges to continue, but mandates that trained and licensed librarians be part of the process.

The law also says none of the restrictions regarding book banning “impairs or limits the rights of a parent, guardian, or an adult” from reviewing or contesting books in schools, a provision that Minnesota Democratic state Rep. Cedrick Frazier, who authored the bill, said will continue to allow parents to have input on what their children read.

“What we wanted to do was put… a uniform practice and policy in place so that across the entire state, every school district, every public library, there would be a process for how they would take a look at these challenges if they came up,” Frazier told CNN.

A 2023 Banned Books Week display at a branch of the New York Public Library. - Ted Shaffrey/AP
A 2023 Banned Books Week display at a branch of the New York Public Library. - Ted Shaffrey/AP

“We were intentional about saying that it doesn’t take away the rights of parents to have curriculums reviewed with challenged material. That can still be done. We just have a process in place that is uniform and transparent as to how you can do that.”

But some parental rights groups, including the Minnesota Parents Alliance, have condemned the law. Cristine Trooien, executive director of the group, said the law is “another disappointing example” of Democrats and teacher unions not “focusing on real issues in K-12 education that have real consequences for Minnesota students and our state.”

“Sadly, for students, it’s easier for the political left and teachers’ unions to use their power, influence and bottomless resources to saturate the K-12 conversation with straw man issues like ‘book banning’ than it is to confront and solve the literacy and student achievement crisis,” Trooien told CNN.

Legal clarity for librarians and educators

In some states, like Missouri, librarians can face a fine and jail time for distributing books deemed to be “explicit sexual material” or inappropriate in school.

Minnesotan librarians and educators told CNN they welcomed a law establishing legal criteria for how to address book challenges in their state. Marie Hydukovich, a middle school and high school librarian for Stillwater Area Public Schools in Minnesota, said the new law is a “security blanket” for her and other librarians.

“I know some media specialists in some districts have been so scared to order very popular books because they don’t have a policy or a procedure protecting them or a law protecting them from challenges and they could lose their job over it,” Hydukovich told CNN.

“I am hoping that this law protects us a little more from that and we’re able to be a little more logical in ordering an appropriate book.”

Denise Specht, president of the union Education Minnesota, said the law also closes loopholes that would allow someone to ban books at the local level through a school board. Specht said many educators are also relieved.

“The educators who have been at the center of some of these culture wars, in particular the book bans, they didn’t get into teaching to be in the middle of a culture war. They want to teach and they want their students to learn, and they want to learn a complete history and they want their students to see themselves in books,” she told CNN.

“Most of them want to see their school boards spending time on figuring out how to support the students and how to support the educators rather than getting into things like this.”

Peter Bromberg, associate director of EveryLibrary, a nonprofit supporting public and school libraries, said the group is working with 87 grassroots campaigns in 34 states and statewide coalitions to push back on book bans or prohibit the bans.

Bromberg said the organization is working with coalitions in Arkansas, Delaware, Utah, Georgia, Texas, and Florida.

“The goal is (to) help these local groups do the vital work in their communities that will ensure that boards and elected officials are held accountable, books are not censored, diverse voices are not silenced, librarians are protected against attacks, and libraries remain fully funded and free from illegitimate political interference with their governance,” he said.

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