Censorship or Protection? A Debate on Book Banning in Schools

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Book Banning Is on the Rise, But Who Does it Benefit?

By Suzanne Gallagher, Executive Director, Parents’ Rights In Education; Allan and Sheri Rivlin, CEO and President of Zen Political Research; Asra Q. Nomani, Journalist and Education Advocate

This debate is being published in collaboration with The Impact Guild, a professional network for people who create, use, or distribute media, arts, or entertainment for social good or healthy democracy. 

Is the Removal of Books From a School Library, “Banning?”

By Suzanne Gallagher – Executive Director, Parents’ Rights In Education

“Banning” is defined as “legally or officially prohibiting something.” In the case of a public school placing restrictions on books based on inappropriate content for minors, no official ban occurs because the controversial books are available elsewhere via booksellers or the Internet. 

The American Library Association (ALA), however, would have you think otherwise. According to a 2022 AP report, the ALA claims the wave of attempted book banning and restrictions continues to intensify. Banned Book Week, sponsored annually by the ALA, is promoted in libraries around the country via table displays, posters, essay contests, and other events highlighting contested works. Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, says “I’ve never seen anything like this… It used to be a parent had learned about a given book and had an issue with it. Now, we see campaigns where organizations are compiling lists of books, without necessarily reading or even looking at them.”

Inappropriate Library Books for Minors Are Not New

We have to go back to the mid-’70s to find out what the Supreme Court said about “book banning” in K–12 local schools. In October 1981, SCOTUS agreed to review a case stemming from a decision by the school board of Island Trees, Long Island, to remove nine books from its libraries and curriculum. According to one of the board’s press releases, the books were “anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic (sic) and just plain filthy.” In 1980, a Federal Court of Appeals declared it was “permissible and appropriate” for local school boards “to make decisions based upon their personal, social, political, and moral views.” The court thereby upheld a 1977 ban by the school board in Warsaw, Indiana, against five books, including Sylvia Plath’s novel “The Bell Jar.” 

In the end, in Island Trees School District v. Pico, the Justices were unable to come to a majority agreement and instead issued what is known as a “plurality” opinion, in which some combination of justices signed on to three different opinions in order to render an outcome. The standard from Pico is that school officials may not remove books from the school library simply because they dislike the ideas in the book. However, school officials may remove a book from a school library if it is inappropriate for the children of the school. 

Significantly, there are no clear federal laws that specify what rights school boards or local governments have to decide what books will be available in school or public libraries. That is one reason the Supreme Court agreed to review the Island Trees case—as a way of sorting out the conflicting rights of local authorities and readers. 

It’s Always About the Money

Curriculum companies have much to gain if these additional books are available and promoted in the school library for students and school staff to supplement their narrative. The campaign to rid libraries of anti-family literature in the name of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Justice is just one initiative of the progressive plan. Parents, censored by their school boards, are not giving up. They are laying the groundwork for a program to inspire local communities to take back control of their school districts.

Sheri and Allan Rivlin min e1657014154542

Communities Should Decide What Books Students Can Read, Not Divisive Politicians

By Allan and Sheri Rivlin – CEO and President of Zen Political Research

Throughout our history, Americans have been able to find common ground resolutions to our differences through respectful discourse, creative problem-solving, and tolerance for our different points of view. Recently, however, our politics has become dominated by adversarial standoffs between extreme positions and efforts to delegitimize opponents’ (real or imagined) agendas to destroy American values and threaten the safety of “our” children and families.

Improving our schools now needs less political strife and more collaboration. Parents, teachers, and librarians, working as a collaborative team, are best equipped to steer individual students away from books that may be inappropriate for their stage of development, and toward books that may answer their individual inquiries and, more generally, expand their knowledge base.

Defined by Division

Throughout our history, we have been a nation defined by our divisions; the first battles over slavery, then over segregation, were joined at the start of the 20th Century by battles over the right of men to drink alcohol, and the right of women to vote. Our recent book, “Divided We Fall: Why Consensus Matters”, details how the modern political system rewards groups that take uncompromising and extreme positions. Often, these differences have taken the form of fights over what books are available in bookstores and libraries. Many books have drawn opposition for including sexual relationships, relationships between people of different races, and relationships between people of the same gender. The controversies reflect deeply held divisions over religion and morality and are so varied that it is impossible to define criteria to determine what books are appropriate for adults or minors to read at each stage in their development. 

Because we cannot agree on the “what”, we continue to battle on the question of “who” should decide. What should be the role of students, parents, teachers, librarians, and school administrators, in deciding what books are appropriate for each child to read? What should be the role of elected politicians serving on Boards of Education, State Legislators, and Governors? Students are in a special category because they are minors, so parents will always be legally responsible for all the important decisions in their lives.

There is No Enemy, Just a Different Point of View

Suzanne Gallagher claims to represent all parents, but she only represents some. She represents those who agree with her, in opposition to parents who hold a different political, religious, or moral view. The American right to free assembly is guaranteed by the First Amendment, so we applaud her efforts to support parents who believe their rights are not being respected. We take issue with any group that defines the agenda of another group as evil, extreme, and a dangerous threat. The people who oppose book banning are none of these things, they are parents who are motivated by the desire for our schools to be non-threatening, supportive environments for their child’s growth and exploration.

Your opponents across the room in your school or school district meetings about book banning may not be the Gender Queer, Marxist, Black Lives Matter activist you imagine you are fighting. With more than 80% of Americans telling a 2022 CBS News Poll that they oppose book banning, the parents speaking against banning a particular book from a particular library may be a Democrat, Republican, or political independent who cares about the learning environment for their child who may be white, black, or some other race; Christian, Jewish, Muslim, atheist, or some other faith; gay, straight, or uncertain, as they look to develop their personal expression of their individuality.

Complex and Unpleasant Truths

The traditional liberal point of view is that heterogeneity of thought is far less dangerous than homogeneity of thought and that students, parents, and teachers should be aligned in the process of exposing students to new ideas at the appropriate age for each student. Liberals believe the real world is full of complexity and unpleasant truths, American history includes greatness as well as great tragedy, and human sexuality arrives in diverse forms as early as middle school with the potential to cause great joy as well as great harm to students’ developing identities. It is important that our schools and libraries reflect these values as well. 

We Need to Apply the Penthouse Standard to K-12 Schools

By Asra Q. Nomani – Journalist, Education Advocate, and Author of “Woke Army”

As a journalist and author, I love books. As an immigrant from India at the age of four, my best friend later became Nancy Drew, the fictional detective whose adventures I adored. At 18, I got my first internship at Harper’s Magazine after scouring the magazines in my hometown library in Morgantown, W.V., and cold calling the magazine’s office. The editor who interviewed me told me she loved a profile I had written for West Virginia University’s Daily Athenaeum of the hippie activist, Abbie Hoffman, and hired me on the spot.

All my life, I’ve been a classic liberal and for most of my life voted Democrat. As an American Muslim author, I’ve written books about women’s rights and sexual rights, including a book about Tantra, which includes a meditative form of sex. These were adult manifestos with themes of liberation and social justice. This is to say, I am neither a prude nor do I clutch pearls that I do not wear.

Activists Have Hijacked the Kids’ Book Industry and Libraries

But starting in the summer of 2020, I saw books suddenly weaponized to bring activism, age-inappropriate content, and indoctrination into the hands of children whose brains had not yet developed cognitively enough to understand the big words, ideas, and manipulations on the pages in front of them. I became a leader in the movement to draw attention to these books and advocate for parents’ rights. And I watched as organizations I had once supported as neutral caretakers of the well-being and spirit of children—groups like the American Library Association and PEN International—become hijacked by activists ready to ditch the very concept of age-appropriateness in the name of wokeness. And by drawing attention to these issues, we the parents were indulging in “book banning.” 

The problem with that label is that it is a lie. I bought these books to read them myself and, disturbed by the transparent inappropriateness of their messages, I have carried them with me. From the midtown Manhattan studio of journalist John Stossel to the set of CNN in Washington, D.C., and the green room of talk show host Dr. Phil in Los Angeles, I carry these books with me because you have to see this age-inappropriate content to believe it. I know them by heart. They foment schisms for children before they have even had time to develop their “sense of self,” the critical psychological scaffolding that gives them resilience, balance, and clarity as children and adults.

The Penthouse Standard In K-12 Schools is Commonsense

There’s a reason you don’t find Penthouse or Playboy in the school library though surely many cisgender, heterosexual boys would love to have them as manuals of sexual instruction. How exactly, then, do activists justify books that teach race hate and indulge in pornography at the same time they serve as agents of grooming and state-sponsored indoctrination? This, from the same crowd that cheers when Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Little House on the Prairie are expunged from libraries because they offend modern sensibilities. Or when editors changed the works of Roald Dahl to make them politically correct. 

Next time activists and ideologues cry, “Stop book banning,” they should take a long look in the mirror. And they should leave kids alone. 

Sheri and Allan Rivlin min e1657014154542

Opponents of Book Banning Motivated Not by “Grooming” But to Safeguard Democracy

By Allan and Sheri Rivlin – CEO and President of Zen Political Research

We appreciate that Ms. Nomani takes pains to assure readers that she is not an extremist when it comes to books, free expression of unpopular ideas, or human sexuality. It is best when people discuss political differences as people rather than as caricatures of their views by their opponents. As for ourselves, we are not Marxist revolutionaries, supporters of Antifa, or members of the “Woke Army” Ms. Nomani describes in her book. We are not leftist activists that “exploit the ideas in ‘critical race theory’” as “a form of cultural Marxism.” Rather, we wrote a book calling for respectful dialogue and bipartisan compromise as necessary to healing our divided nation, creating an alternative to the hyperpartisan stalemates and standoffs that hamper legislative achievement and problem-solving. 

There is a video in one of Ms. Nomani’s recent Substack posts that purports to show a Virginia mother politely reading from “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe and sharing the illustrations that she believes are pornographic with the Fairfax County Public School Board until she is interrupted by a series of board members and prevented from completing her speech. We oppose the rudeness in the video and we regret the interruptions. Although we do not know what provocations preceded the events in the video, we do know that activists can both give and receive verbal abuse, but we would call on all parties to look for non-confrontational solutions. This Virginia mother claims she found the book in her child’s school library. Perhaps she could have discussed her concerns with the librarian to understand the librarian’s position on the book and whether it is assigned reading for any class? Is there a solution that would not force children to read this book against their parents’ wishes, but also not restrict access for students whose parents support freedom of expression? Does “leave kids alone” go in both directions?

Many progressives view book banning with great suspicion because it is so closely associated with authoritarianism throughout human history. In a nation still suffering the traumatic violence of the January 6th Capitol insurrection, many Americans are taking the view that they must act to safeguard American democracy. Efforts to ban books are fairly or unfairly being opposed by some Americans motivated, not by an agenda to groom children for depravity, but simply to maintain the free flow of ideas in our American democracy. 

Freedom of Speech Does Not Apply When Exposing Minors to Obscenity

By Suzanne Gallagher – Executive Director, Parents’ Rights In Education

President Ronald Reagan formed a Commission to study the serious effects of obscenity and child pornography in the US, and signed legislation isolating child pornography as a criminal offense in 1984. By legal definition, minors are exposed to pornography in K–12 schools and libraries daily. Graphic descriptions of sexual activities are made available to students via Comprehensive Sexuality Education K–12 curriculum and obscenity depicting body parts and sexual behaviors is offered as a means of “safe sex.”

Yet, exemptions to anti-obscenity laws passed by 43 state legislatures make it legal for teachers and librarians to display obscene materials to minors without parental knowledge or consent. Educators have the legal freedom to use materials that would otherwise be illegal if any other adult showed them to another’s child. For example, Oregon law states that a person convicted of displaying or showing a minor obscene and/or sexually explicit material can be fined up to $10,000 unless the individual is a public school teacher acting in a professional role. Every state’s laws are different. However, until these Obscenity Exemption laws are repealed, it will become impossible to remove legally obscene materials.

Who passed and defended these destructive laws? Sexualizing children is big business, and public schools are the distribution centers. Parents won’t quit defending their rights. It ends here.

Don’t Conflate Book Banning with Age Appropriateness

By Asra Q. Nomani – Journalist, Education Advocate, and Author of “Woke Army”

Those who claim to champion civil discourse ironically weaponize the term “book banning” to conflate it with the critical and very real issue of age appropriateness. This is particularly true when it comes to dealing with the prickly matters of gender and sexuality and the school library. For starters, parents—not schools, teachers and guidance counselors—are the natural arbiters of the timeline on which such matters are exposed to their children. “New ideas,” as the Rivlins describe them, that may be fine for a sixth grader can be totally inappropriate for a third grader.

The argument that this is really not parents’ business is elitist, wrong, and misguided. The parent-child bond is sacred and the fallout and brunt of inappropriate-age exposure is not felt by the school librarian or principal but on the home front. That’s why a book like “Gender Queer”—with pornographic passages and sexually explicit illustrations—has no place in the middle school library. That parents feel this way doesn’t mean we embrace “book banning.” Parents who may think it appropriate can buy it for their children. Meanwhile, we know for a fact that many of the same so-called progressives who shame parents as “book banners” bowdlerize “Dr. Seuss” books and cast them out of schools because of words and cultural attitudes that don’t conform to their norms. Apparently, they’re in favor of banning certain books and ideas—as long as they can make the rules. 

It is parents who see most clearly what is healthy and age-inappropriate for their babes whom they tuck into bed each night. That is not “authoritarianism,” as the Rivlins state, that is healthy parenting and love.

This debate is being published in collaboration with The Impact Guild, a professional network for people who create, use, or distribute media, arts, or entertainment for social good or healthy democracy. If you enjoyed this debate, you can read more Political Pen Pal debates here

Suzanne Gallagher
Executive Director, Parents’ Rights In Education

Suzanne Gallagher has served as the Director of Parents’ Rights In Education since 2018. Prior to this role, she was a corporate executive, business owner, and president of Oregon Eagle Forum, motivating hundreds of people to attend school board meetings defending parents’ rights. Suzanne has served as a citizen lobbyist in the Oregon state capitol on many issues related to education policy.

Sheri and Allan Rivlin min e1657014154542
Sheri Rivlin and Allan Rivlin

Sheri Rivlin and Allan Rivlin are the CEO and president, respectively, of Zen Political Research, a public opinion, marketing research, and communications strategy consulting firm founded in 2015. They are the son and daughter-in-law of Alice M. Rivlin, and since she passed away in 2019, they have been working to complete her final manuscript, “Divided We Fall, Why Consensus Matters” was published in October 2022 by Brookings Press.

Asra Nomani
Journalist, Education Advocate, and Author of "Woke Army"

Asra Q. Nomani is a senior contributor to The Federalist, senior fellow in the practice of journalism at Independent Women's Network, and and former reporter for the Wall Street Journal. A former professor of journalism at Georgetown University, she leads the Pearl Project, which investigated the murder of her colleague and friend, Daniel Pearl. She is author of “Woke Army: The Red-Green Alliance That Is Destroying America's Freedom" and "Standing Alone: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam." She is cofounder of the Coalition for TJ, advocating for parent's rights in education.


Anonymous October 20, 2023 at 1:38 am

Personally, I like the standard where if the book can’t be read in its entirety at a school board meeting, it flat out shouldn’t be in a school library. I absolutely support banning books from the public school system which don’t meet that standard. Not everything which gets published has value, and given that the funds used to purchase these books come from the public purse, we should be taking a _very_ conservative standpoint on content fit for the public. If people want more questionable materials, let them buy those items themselves and host their own private libraries for those materials.

Blair Christensen May 30, 2023 at 2:39 pm

Personally, I like the standard where if the book can’t be read in its entirety at a school board meeting, it flat out shouldn’t be in a school library. I absolutely support banning books from the public school system which don’t meet that standard. Not everything which gets published has value, and given that the funds used to purchase these books come from the public purse, we should be taking a _very_ conservative standpoint on content fit for the public. If people want more questionable materials, let them buy those items themselves and host their own private libraries for those materials.


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