Book bans in the US: land of free speech pulls publications from school libraries

Pupils fight to reverse school board decisions

Two books in the graphic novel series 'Maus' by American cartoonist Art Spiegelman. 'Maus' was recently banned in Tennessee. Reuters
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An intense political battle is being waged in the US before this year’s midterm elections — but not in the corridors of the Capitol.

It is being fought at local school board meetings across the country, where officials are weighing bans on books that have been deemed objectionable by parents or politicians.

The issue dominated the news again this week when Whoopi Goldberg was suspended from ABC's The View talk show for her comments about the Holocaust.

Her remarks came as she discussed a local school board's banning of the Pulitzer-prize-winning graphic novel Maus.

In a country where free speech is enshrined under the First Amendment of the Constitution, the notion of banning books for children has further riled an already bitterly divided America.

Conservative communities are restricting schoolbooks that probe the country’s history of slavery and racial oppression, while liberal activists have spoken out against publications -- including by the beloved children’s author Dr Seuss -- containing imagery now deemed racist or insensitive.

The number of book bans and challenges has soared recently.

According to the American Library Association, 330 books were challenged as objectionable by communities across the US in the last three months of 2021. This is compared to all of 2020, when the organisation received 156 challenges.

Most recently, in Tennessee, a local school board banned Maus, a Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust, due to concerns over “rough” language and nudity.

Critics were outraged that officials would see nudity as more objectionable than teaching teenagers about the horrors of the Holocaust.

Created by renowned cartoonist Art Spiegelman, sales of Maus soared immediately after the ban.

Overturning a ban

Two hours north of Washington DC, a group of high school pupils fought back against a local book ban.

The pupils, from Central York High School’s Panther Anti-Racist Union, convinced their school board to reverse a ban on anti-racist books in school libraries. It took weeks of protesting and the petitioning of pupils and parents.

They established their union in 2020 following George Floyd's murder by police in Minneapolis, seeking to address issues related to social justice and race.

“I was frustrated. I was mad. I was upset,” Edha Gupta, union president and a senior at York Central, said of the ban.

Her vice president, Christina Ellis, urged pupils in districts that have experienced bans to unite and call for change.

“If your moral compass goes off, and this is wrong, change the direction. You can change the narrative,” she told The National.

“It only takes one person to start talking.”

Both girls credit teachers Ben Hodges and Patty Jackson for supporting their efforts, though the two educators came under intense pressure for doing so.

“There were personal attacks against Ben and myself, where our jobs were on the line; there were people that were seeking our termination because we had encouraged the kids to speak up,” Ms Jackson said.

The teachers sought guidance from organisations such as PEN America, which helps fight educational bans across the US.

“There's a lot of parental anger that is in some ways the result of the pandemic and in some ways has been encouraged by some national organisations,” said Jonathan Friedman, the director of freedom of expression and education at PEN America.

In November, Republican Glenn Youngkin defeated former Democratic state governor Terry McAuliffe in the Virginia gubernatorial election in what many analysts regard as a harbinger of results to come in the midterm elections.

With President Joe Biden’s approval ratings slumping and his Democratic Party now largely incapable of passing legislation, the Republicans are expected to easily regain a Congressional majority on November 8.

Mr Youngkin campaigned largely on educational policies and vowed to ban critical race theory from being taught in Virginia schools.

What is critical race theory?

FRANKFORT, KY - AUGUST 28: A man with a US flag, and a.  Make America Great Again hat stands during a rendition of the US National Anthem during the Kentucky Freedom Rally at the capitol building on August 28, 2021 in Frankfort, Kentucky.  Demonstrators gathered on the grounds of the capitol to speak out against a litany of issues, including Kentucky Gov.  Andy Beshears management of the coronavirus pandemic, abortion laws, and the teaching of critical race theory.  Demonstrators and speakers also refuted the legitimacy of the 2020 United State presidential election, claiming that former President Donald Trump won and should be reinstated.    Jon Cherry / Getty Images / AFP

Critical race theory is a decades-old academic concept examining how race and law intersect in America. It scrutinises US history through the prism of the country’s historic racism and its former apartheid policies.

The theory – and the banning of related books from schools – has become a key issue for Republicans, with more politicians speaking out against it.

Mr Youngkin has even set up a hotline for parents to report “divisive” practices or material in schools.

Mr Friedman, of PEN America, says much of the concern comes from a fear that what is being taught in schools is somehow secretive and suspicious, so must be challenged by parents who don’t necessarily appreciate the nuances of the topic.

“Unfortunately, what we're seeing is this idea that the angriest and loudest parent must be a better authority on how to teach literature or history or science than the teacher,” he said.

They have “little consideration, it seems, for all the other students in these classes, who also have a right to learn basic information to have access to literature.”

The increase in educational gag orders is reminiscent of the 1980s, when conservatism under president Ronald Reagan swept the country, he added.

With America’s fractured politics becoming increasingly divisive, it appears school boards will remain on the front line.

“A public school should be a place where all that … comes together in a safe and protected and progressive environment,” Ms Ellis said.

Updated: August 24, 2022, 10:22 PM