The U.S. House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties marked National Library Week this week by holding a three-hour hearing April 7 to discuss the recent spike in book bans in school classrooms and libraries across the country.

While the speakers were sincere in relating their personal experiences with book banning and its impact upon them as students, teachers, librarians, parents, the proceedings at times veered into political theater, with subcommittee members springboarding from book bans to Hunter Biden’s laptop, the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, and subcommittee member Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio)’s complaint that conservatives are victims of “cancel culture.”

After calling the meeting to order an hour late, Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) provided a short history of court cases in the U.S. that addressed relevant First Amendment issues.

In its 1982 ruling in Board of Education vs. Pico, the Supreme Court rejected an effort by a school board to toss objectionable books from the town’s public school libraries, Raskin said. He noted that the justices who agreed that the nine titles in question should remain on library shelves included those nominated to the Supreme Court by Republican presidents. “’The selective removal of books from school libraries because someone considers the content offensive directly and sharply impedes students’ free speech and thought,” Raskin said, quoting from the Court’s ruling. “The answer to books whose content or viewpoint you oppose or even deplore—check out this powerful logic—is to not read them or to write a negative review, or even—shades of Voltaire here—write your own book in answer.”

“Learn to tolerate the speech you abhor, as well as the speech you agree with,” urged Raskin. “It’s not always easy, but this is incumbent upon people living in a free, democratic society. If we cancel or censor everything that people find offensive, nothing will be left. Everybody is offended by something, and that’s why other people’s level of offense cannot be the metric for defining whether your rights or my rights are vaporized.”

Raskin provided various statistics to demonstrate that “basic intellectual freedoms are under attack” in the U.S. In 2021, he said, the American Library Association reported the highest numbers of books being challenged in the 20 years the organization has tracked such data: 729 efforts to censor almost 1,600 books. The state legislature in Texas is challenging approximately 850 books in school districts across the state—including Raskin’s own book, We the People. And that very morning, Raskin added, PEN America reported that between July 1, 2021-March 31, 2022, there were 1,586 book bans implemented in 86 school districts in 26 states: 41% of the books had BIPOC protagonists or prominent secondary characters; 22% directly addressed race and racism; and 33% addressed LGBTQ issues.

“Many books are being targeted for censorship these days, simply because they address racism or white supremacy, or address human sexuality or LGBTQ issues,” he pointed out. “The protagonist or the author is gay or a person of color or some other allegedly objectionable reason.”

In response, Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C) who is the vice chair of the subcommittee, argued that the suppression of free speech on college campuses is a much worse problem than book bans in schools, saying, “There have been disturbing campaigns to expel students, fire faculty, or disinvite speakers whose views are considered to go against the progressive consensus or group think. These universities and colleges are unlawfully stifling free speech to coddle young adults at a time when they should be exposed to a variety of ideas and perspectives. While progressive activists shut down speech on college campuses, they are trying to hyper-expose children who are still learning to read and write, add and subtract.”

Guest speakers testify

The first panel of guest speakers were three high school students. All three emphasized that banning books that feature BIPOC or LGBTQ characters are attacks upon students who identify as BIPOC or LGBTQ, further disenfranchising those who already belong to marginalized communities. “I deserve to walk into a school library and find a book about someone like me,” Olivia Pituch of York, Pa. said. “Don’t silence the voices that are just beginning to be heard.” Christina Ellis, also from York, recalled her own experience being one of few African-American children in her grade school and the ignorance and disrespect she endured on a daily basis. She emphasized that reading books about BIPOC and LGBTQ characters teaches empathy and respect for people “of unique and minority backgrounds.”

The second panel included librarian Samantha Hull, who suggested that if a book offends, it should prompt a conversation instead of being banned. Mindy Freeman, the parent of a trans teen, pointed out that “no book made my child go trans any more than a book could turn her eyes from brown to blue.” Jessica Berg, a teacher, described book bans as a “crusade against critical thinking that has instilled fear” in educators who are already overworked and underpaid. “These book banners don’t want everyone to have a voice,” she said. “Because the status quo is predicated on silence.”

Ruby Bridges, who gained fame at age six in 1960 when a photo was published of her walking into her school surrounded by Federal marshals, related her response to challenges to her 2009 children’s autobiography, Ruby Bridges Goes to School, because as Raskin noted, critics say that it “may make white children feel uncomfortable.”

“My books are written to bring people together,” she said. “Why would they be banned? But the real question is, why are we banning any books at all? Surely, we are better than this: we are the United States of America, with freedom of speech.”

“If we are to ban books for being too truthful, then surely we must ban those books that omit or distort the truth,” she said. “There are some parents who may find the truth hard to talk about, but we cannot hide the truth from our kids. It is history and history is sacred. We shouldn’t change or alter it in any way.”

Questions and answers

During the question-and answer period, there was some sparring between the adult panelists and Republican subcommittee members regarding the rights of parents to bypass teachers and contact school boards to express their opinions on books made available to their children in schools. Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) presented a video of speakers on university and college campuses being harassed, including thousands of students protesting Ann Coulter’s appearance at the University of California-Berkeley in 2019. And Mace questioned Hull as to why, if controversial books were not available in school libraries, couldn’t students obtain such books elsewhere, such as public libraries, Amazon, or bookstores,and even Goodwill?

“So what you’re saying, there’s more than one opportunity for a parent or a kid to get a book? They’re not limited to public schools, they can get a book in a lot of places, even a coffee shop if they wanted to, right?” Mace asked.

Summing it all up before adjourning the session, Raskin said, “We’re going to advance the First Amendment values that all of us hold dear, if we can step a little beyond our own sense of grievance and indignation. Let’s try to maintain a sense of balance, and we can talk about how to improve the climate for everybody.”

Raskin likened the First Amendment to Abe Lincoln’s golden apple of liberty. "Everybody wants to take a bite out of the apple, and if we allow all those bites, there will simply be no apple left," he said. "We’ve got to defend not just the speech we love and the speech we agree with, but also the speech that might also force us to learn something new or the speech that we think we really detest.”