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Banned in the USA: Who is behind book bans?

September 29, 2022 Jonathan Friedman, Ph.D and Nadine Farid Johnson
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Book bans in public schools have recurred throughout American history, with notable flare-ups in the McCarthy era and the early 1980s. But, while long present, the scope of such censorship has expanded drastically and in unprecedented fashion since the beginning of the 2021–22 school year. This campaign is in part driven by politics, with state lawmakers and executive branch officials pushing for bans in some cases. In Texas, for example, Republican state representative Matt Krause sent a letter and list with 850 books to school districts, asking them to investigate and report on which of the titles they held in libraries or classrooms. Political pressure of this sort in TexasSouth CarolinaWisconsinGeorgia, and elsewhere has been tied to hundreds of book bans.

Another major factor driving this dramatic expansion of book banning has been the proliferation of organized efforts to advocate for book removals. Organizations and groups involved in pushing for book bans have sprung up rapidly at the local and national levels, particularly since 2021. These range from local Facebook groups to the nonprofit organization Moms for Liberty, a national-level organization that now has over 200 chapters.

In the short period since their formation and expansion, these groups have played a role in at least half of the book bans enacted across the country during the 2021–22 school year. PEN America estimates that at least 20 percent of the book bans enacted in that time frame could be linked directly to the actions of these groups, with many more likely influenced by them. This 20 percent is based on publicly available information and includes cases where a parent or community group took direct action to seek the removal of books by making a statement at a school board meeting, submitting a list of books for formal reconsideration, or filing formal reconsideration paperwork; in many of these cases, the groups also openly touted their role in pushing for book removals. In an additional approximately 30 percent of bans, there is some evidence of the groups’ likely influence, including the use of common language or tactics.

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The Groups Advocating for Book Bans

PEN America has identified at least 50 groups operating at the national, state, or local levels to campaign and mobilize around what they view as the dangers of books in K-12 schools, and advocating for book restrictions and bans. Of these 50 groups, eight have regional and local chapters that, between them, number at least 300 in total; some of these operate predominantly through social media. This presents a minimum count, based on news coverage, school board meetings, and groups’ public presence online.

  • Of the national groups, Moms for Liberty, formed in 2021, has spread most broadly, with over 200 local chapters identified on their website. Other national groups with branches include US Parents Involved in Education (50 chapters), No Left Turn in Education (25), MassResistance (16), Parents’ Rights in Education (12), Mary in the Library (9), County Citizens Defending Freedom USA (5), and Power2Parent (5).
  • Another 38 state, regional, or community groups advocating for book removals appear unaffiliated with the national groups or with one another.

While some of these groups have existed for years, the overwhelming majority are of recent origin: more than 70 percent (including chapters) were formed since 2021.

These varied groups do not all share identical aims, but they have found common cause in advancing an effort to control and limit what kinds of books are available in schools. Broadly, this movement is intertwined with political movements that grew throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, including fights against mask mandates and virtual school, as well as disputes over “critical race theory” that in some states fueled the introduction of educational gag orders prohibiting discussion of “divisive” concepts in classrooms. While many of these groups use language in their mission statements about parents’ rights or religious or conservative views, some also make explicit calls for the exclusion of materials that touch on race (sometimes explicitly critical race theory) or LGBTQ+ themes.

The impact and role of these groups has been noted in dozens of cases of book challenges around the country. For example, local chapters of Moms for Liberty have been reported as driving efforts to remove books from Florida to North Carolina to Virginia. Chapters of County Citizens Defending Freedom pushed for book removals in Polk County Schools, Florida and Corpus Christi, Texas. In Clark County, Nevada, the group Power2Parent successfully got a book removed from a 10th grade honors English class reading list. Leaders of state chapters of Parents Involved in Education have been quoted calling for book removals at school board meetings in KansasTennessee, and South Dakota, When two students filed a lawsuit with the ACLU of Missouri they claimed the removal of books in Wentzville, MO was part of a “targeted campaign by the St. Charles County Parents Association and No Left Turn in Education’s Missouri chapter to remove particular ideas and viewpoints about race and sexuality from school libraries.”

Although the channels of influence and coordination among these groups are not always clear, and the groups range in size and impact, their role in the book banning movement of the past year is a consistent theme.

In Madison County Schools, Mississippi, for example, a parent who identified herself as the point person for Mississippi’s chapter of MassResistance (a national group also classified as an anti-LGBTQ+ “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center), expressed “concerns regarding critical race theory” and worked with parents to review the schools’ online library catalogs, seeking books that had been challenged in other parts of the country. By April 2022, the district had said the books were being placed in “restricted circulation” (requiring a parent’s permission to check out) while they were being reviewed.

MassResistance—which claims the January 6 attack on the US Capitol was “clearly a setup” and alleges a “Black Lives Matter and LGBT assault” on schools—took credit for bringing these restrictions about, declaring, “MassResistance gets involved—things start happening!” and referencing “‘groomer moms’ in the community” who opposed the removal of the 22 books. In August, the school board voted to place some of the books back in full circulation, but a list of 10 books remain restricted, including Toni Morrison’s Beloved and The Bluest Eye, along with The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. Another parent who was a vocal critic of the books at a local school board meeting was also identified as the chair of the Moms for Liberty Madison chapter.

Some groups without significant national operations have also had far reach. The Florida Citizens Alliance (FLCA), for example, was founded in 2013 to “champion education reform.” But its leaders have spent considerable time and energy opposing climate change educationarguing for the elimination of sex education in K–12 schools, and publishing the misleading 2021 Objectionable Materials Report: Pornography and Age-Inappropriate Material in Florida Public Schools (provocatively named the Porn in Schools Report on their website). With a mailing of their “Porn in Schools” report and follow-up via their legal representative, the Pacific Justice Institute, the FLCA pushed for bans across the state. Ultimately they have played a role in bans in several counties in Florida, such as Jackson County School DistrictOrange County Public SchoolsSt. Lucie County SchoolsPolk County School District, and Walton County School District. In Walton County School District, the superintendent responded to their email by directing the removal of all books on the list, despite admitting, “I haven’t read one paragraph of the books at this time.” Their advocacy was also connected to ‘warning labels’ being applied to over 100 books in school libraries in Collier County, Florida.

Even smaller, less formal groups have had an impact too. Between February and April 2022, Nixa Public Schools in Missouri received 17 complaints about 16 books, each citing “inappropriate and sexually explicit content,” which were subsequently banned. The woman who filed the most requests confirmed that she was a member of “Concerned Parents of Nixa,” a private Facebook group where community members gather to fight “questionable books, curriculum, and other materials such as sex education in Nixa Public Schools.” Concerned Parents of Nixa recently changed its name to Concerned Parents of the Ozarks. While it is unclear whether their list was solely from another group, the titles they challenged are the same ones seen over and over again amongst school libraries who have had to pull or otherwise eliminate access to them as a result.

Attendees of a Spotsylvania County, Va., School Board meeting raise and shake their hands in support of speakers criticizing the board for suggesting that sexually explicit books be banned at county schools on Monday, Nov. 15, 2021. The meeting was held in the auditorium of Chancellor High School to accommodate the large crowd. Photo: Peter Cihelka/The Free Lance-Star via AP

“I cannot understand why, why are we banning books? My books are written to bring people together. Why would they be banned? But the real question is, why are we banning books at all? Surely, we are better than this. We are the United States of America.” —Ruby Bridges, testifying before the House Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties and author of This Is Your Time (2 bans)

These groups have employed a range of common tactics to advance book banning in public schools. Most of these tactics, it should be emphasized, are tactics that many advocacy and community organizing groups employ to a wide range of ends. Citizens are free to organize and advocate; these liberties are protected under the First Amendment’s safeguards for freedom of association. PEN America’s concern is not with the use of such standard organizing and mobilization tactics but rather with the end goal of restricting or banning books. That said, in some cases, members of these groups have also crossed a line, using online harassment or filing criminal complaints to pressure local officials and educators.

One common trend is that many of these groups circulate to their audiences lists of books to target. PEN America saw dozens of lists that circulated online during the 2021–22 school year, and these also occasionally morphed or grew in the process of being shared among groups.

Some groups appear to feed off work to promote diverse books, contorting those efforts to further their own censorious ends. They have inverted the purpose of lists compiled for teachers and librarians interested in introducing a more diverse set of reading materials into the classroom or library. For example, one group, the Idaho Freedom Foundation, referenced multiple lists celebrating books about equity, inclusion, and human rights under the header “Federal Agencies Are Sexualizing Idaho Libraries,” accused the federal government of using “taxpayer dollars to promote a pernicious ideology to young children,” and called on the Idaho legislature to reject federal funds for libraries. Another group, the Michigan Liberty Leaders, took an image of books from the Welcoming Schools bullying prevention program created by the Human Rights Campaign Fo

Foundation—including books designed to support LGBTQ+ students—and added alarmist language about the books being in schools.

In another example, the list of books created by the FLCA in their “Porn in Schools” report originated from the website Christian Patriot Daily, which said it received its list from a graduate student in early childhood development promoting LGBTQ+ resources for caregivers. This list has in turn appeared to spread across state lines. In March 2022, in Cherokee County School District in Georgia, a parent presented a list of 225 book challenges. In that list, 41 titles were not only identical to those in the 2021 FLCA report, but they were in the same order, with the same typos found in the original list. The same list also appears in a database of books on the website of Forest Hills Parents United, based in Michigan.

The books on these lists are often framed as dangerous or harmful, and the lists have been used to quicken the pace of book banning, often in violation of or with disregard for established, neutral processes, with demands that all books on such lists be removed from schools immediately.

Members of these groups also flood school districts with official challenges to books and mobilize supporters to dominate discussions at public board meetings. In some cases, parents have screamed to disrupt meetings, or threatened violence. In response to such threats, the Sarasota County, Florida, school board placed limits on public comments at board meetings. School boards in Carmel Clay, Indiana, and Sonoma Valley, California, are considering similar restrictions.

Some groups have at times also helped spur complaints from community members without children in public school. In St. Lucie County Schools, Florida, a complainant submitted official reconsideration challenges for 44 titles from the FLCA’s “Porn in Schools” report, only 20 of which were found in the district. The complainant told a reporter that although they personally did not have children in the district, they were “picked” after attending a meeting hosted by FLCA. “I got picked because I took it seriously,” the complainant said.

In the fall of 2021 in Williamson County Schools, Tennessee, Moms for Liberty pushed for a review of the reading curriculum, stating that the curriculum violated a state law (which PEN America counts as an educational gag order). The complaints said materials were too focused on the country’s segregationist past and might make children feel uncomfortable about race. After the review, the district published a report that outlined the relationship of complainants to the school district, and only 14 of the 37 complainants had children enrolled and affected by the curriculum targeted by the complaint. Another 14 had no children in the school system at all, while 9 had children enrolled in middle or high schools. One book, Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech, was ultimately banned permanently, and multiple books had bans placed on what content could be taught, including restrictions on showing students pages 12–13 of Sea Horse: The Shyest Fish in the Sea by Chris Butterworth—pages that included an illustration of the sea creatures twisting tails, rubbing tummies, and mating.

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