On April 24, not long after the American Library Association announced its 13 most challenged books of 2022, the American Booksellers for Free Expression hosted a Zoom panel on “Local Organizing to Combat Book Bans.”

ABFE director David Grogan co-hosted with American Booksellers Association chief communications officer Ray Daniels, and guests included Samiya Bashir, executive director at LGBTQ nonprofit Lambda Literary; Vera Eidelman, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project; Chris Finan, executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship; and Zoe Perzo, ABA’s content coordinator and a former Louisiana librarian. In addition to the panelists, 56 attendees tuned in to a conversation that touched on building store policies and improving Banned Books Week.

Grogan wished everyone a happy Right to Read Day, referring to an unofficial new holiday honoring National Library Week and the anniversary of the ALA-founded Unite Against Book Bans initiative. He urged independent booksellers and customers to sign ABFE’s petition to condemn censorship and said he increasingly fields “requests for interviews from students at both the high school and university levels about free expression and the freedom to read. They are angry about what’s going on and seeking solutions.” Finan pointed to NCAC’s ongoing efforts to organize a national network of high school free speech clubs. (NCAC presently is seeking a community organizer to add to their team as well.)

Another ABFE campaign gaining traction addresses Texas bills HB 900 and SB 13, both designed to restrict reading access. HB 900 proposes rating controversial books “sexually explicit” to prohibit their sale to schools, while SP 13 would create school library advisory councils to prescribe local values and subject librarians and teachers to criminal penalties for exposing children to material deemed harmful. So far, Grogan said, Texas booksellers have sent some 1,000 email messages to state legislators, and “one lawmaker received 347 emails in opposition” to HB 900. “We have a lot of boots on the ground there—lawmakers in Texas are hearing from you,” he told listeners.

Local organizing goes well beyond petitions to legislators, and members of the panel brainstormed grassroots actions for bookstores and literary events. “This is personal—[censors] are coming after us directly and deliberately,” said Bashir, who believes the threat of a ban “will make people afraid to read a book or follow an author.” To combat the efforts of censors, Lambda created the Lambda Literary’s Writers in Schools program, which donates books to kids and brings authors into classrooms for conversation. Those resources don’t come cheaply—“so much depends on ‘how do we get as funded as the opposition?’” Bashir said—but she believes direct communication is the key. “If the author is in your city, do something! We need to be louder. Where are we doing readings of banned books so that people can support the authors and the booksellers who are engaging with them?” she asked.

Strategies for Banned Books Week and Every Week

Bashir and others saw potential in rethinking Banned Books Week, which takes place Oct. 1-7 this year (and as yet has not named an ambassador). “How can we make it larger, louder?” Bashir asked. “On one day, we could talk about the banning of queer books. Another day, we’d talk about the banning of Black books. Another day, we can create the messaging that extends the conversation.”

As part of that messaging, Perzo suggested building templates to help students write to school districts and legislators. “We also need to reach beyond social media,” Perzo said. “A lot of us are very vocal there. But social media is a bubble, and the people that we need to reach are not necessarily in our bubble.” ABA is working on a special edition of Bookselling This Week “specifically around Banned Books Week,” said Daniels, “and we can include a template or form you might adapt to your store to address people who come in talking about book bans.”

Perzo recommended another resource for bookstores: a library-style “request for reconsideration of materials form” to be distributed to people who question a book. “Please have a book-challenge policy in place, and have that policy before you need it,” Perzo said. A policy can include a reconsideration form, which she called “a report that an angry patron must fill out. It serves a couple of purposes. Anger in these situations is performative, and if you have this form, you’ve been nothing but cooperative. You should ask for specifics: What do they object to in the work? Ask for page numbers. This piece of paper, that policy, deflects that anger, and it negates that need for immediate action.”

Eidelman named one more tool at free-speech advocates’ disposal: “specifically, suing in court.” With the ACLU, she successfully represented students and local NAACP chapters in Missouri to restore eight books including Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye to school library shelves; in a Virginia case that PW called “a resounding victory for the freedom to read,” she contested the charges of obscenity leveled at Maya Kobabe’s Gender Queer and Sarah Maas’s A Court of Mist and Fury.

“What we’re talking about here is the right to receive information,” Eidelman said. “We all have that right, and that includes the right of students in schools to get access to information.” She allowed that lower courts are expressing differences of opinion about whether the government can control what students access in public schools and libraries. But, she said, “if we're just talking about what booksellers can sell in their private stores, it becomes a question of what speech is and isn't protected. Sure, the government could ban selling unprotected speech in bookstores, but really the standard there is much higher.”

Others proposed non-litigious, affirmative solutions. Paraphrasing CALIBA co-executive director Ann Seaton, who was in the audience, Daniels asked: “Could we start a ‘this book changed my life’ campaign around banned books that would be shareable on social media?” Finan—who later led a separate panel on Judy Blume’s free-speech activism—cited the celebrity interviewees who take a stand against censorship in Davina Pardo and Leah Wolchok’s documentary, Judy Blume Forever. Influencer endorsements could be a good strategy, Finan commented: “This is a real cat-and-mouse game we’re playing.”