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.