2022 may go down as the year of momentum to ban books, with conservative groups Moms for Liberty, Daughters of the Confederacy and Utah Parents United better networked, better funded and successful in determining what children can access at school or public libraries. And 2023 may be the year of strong, more organized pushback.
Penguin Random House, authors, parents and PEN America, a nonprofit group that advocates for free expression in literature, filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the Escambia County School District and School Board in Pensacola, Florida, for removing 10 books related to race and the LGBTQ community.
This lawsuit puts muscle into fights that lone parents and librarians can’t do on their own.
Plaintiffs alleged both the First and 14th Amendments were violated by “depriving students of access to a wide range of viewpoints, and depriving the authors of the opportunity to engage with readers and disseminate their ideas to their intended audiences.”
What’s confusing in the parental rights push in banning books is the actual role of parents. Sure, every book is worthy of discussion and curation, whether content is appropriate, meaningful and valuable. But parents remain in charge.
Keith Flaugh, one of the founders of Florida Citizens Alliance, said, “This is not about banning books, it’s about protecting the innocence of our children and letting the parents decide what the child gets rather than having government schools indoctrinate our kids.”
But parents do decide what children read. That’s in our parental job descriptions. This talking point of the government indoctrinating our children is silly. The government is not a co-parent. No institution can indoctrinate our children unless we make room for it by not being connected and caring with our children.
We know who’s in charge – and it’s certainly not the government. We don’t hand over any authority because books we find distasteful or offensive sit on shelves.
Children are curious and will sneak peeks at things parents don’t want them to see, more so if subjects are taboo. But that doesn’t mean we lost the battle to raise amazing citizens. Responsible parents talk with their children about how other people live, what their choices are, what’s natural for them, along with ideas we abhor and fear. Our children turn to us when they have questions. We don’t fear indoctrination.
If our sense of morality is tested in a book, we’re not threatened. Quite the opposite. It’s just a window into a conversation. We’re confident our children won’t be led astray. They didn’t learn their values from books – they learned from us.
No doubt, book bans will become a 2024 campaign issue. We envision a debate moderator in front of candidates, holding up the well-loved book, “And Tango Makes Three,” about two male penguins that adopt a baby penguin, and asking: “Where does this land for you? Heartwarming or disgusting?”
No matter that the book is based on a true story from New York City’s Central Park Zoo. It made the “Porn in Schools Report” from Florida Citizens Alliance that lists books that they say contain “indecent and offensive material.”
At the same time, other groups, including Florida’s Freedom to Read Project, are energized and urging members to attend board meetings and track the work of groups like Florida Citizens Alliance.
“Pornography” is being thrown around too loosely. The actual definition from the Cornell University Law School is “material that depicts nudity or sexual acts for the purpose of sexual stimulation.” Or in many other accepted definitions, “intended to arouse.” In the struggle to apply the definition, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart most famously said, “I know it when I see it.”
We’d bet good money penguins were not involved.
For some readers, there’s value in reading about horrific situations that matched their own. Young adult author Patricia McCormick’s novel “Sold” is banned widely for being “pornographic.” The book is based on interviews with girls in India and Nepal who had been sold into slavery. McCormick’s own experiences of sexual assault inform the book, too.
These girls didn’t share experiences of rape to “arouse” or “stimulate” anyone. Instead, they shed light on child trafficking. McCormick said students approached her and shared their own stories of abuse. Reading about the plight of trafficked girls nudged these students to report incidents and get help.
Yes, it’s a tough read. Rather than being offended by the book, how about we’re offended by the fact that this is going on in the world, including in the U.S. To ban this book and look away is to deny the horrendous reality of it.
Be outraged. Be the parent, too.