For those of us who cherish the freedom to read, the current wave of attacks on books in schools and libraries is disheartening. For the teachers and librarians on the front lines, it is far worse. They are being attacked for choosing books that reflect the needs of their students and patrons. They are accused of “grooming” children for sexual abuse, or indoctrinating them with allegedly anti-American ideas about race. In the face of these threats, many are considering leaving the profession they love.
The vitriol is also being directed at the parents, students, and community members courageously standing up and speaking out at public meetings against banning books.
But it would be a mistake to give in to despair. Americans have been successfully fighting for the freedom to read for over a century. In the 1920s, for example, the newly organized American Civil Liberties Union denounced efforts by super-patriots to turn schools into a vehicle for their propaganda. It also challenged a ban on the teaching of evolution in Tennessee with the help of a science teacher named John Scopes.
Publishers, booksellers, and librarians joined the fight against book-banning efforts in 1953, after Sen. Joseph McCarthy led a campaign to purge books by 75 “communist authors” from libraries operated by the U.S. State Department. The American Library Association and the American Book Publishers Council responded by issuing a statement, “The Freedom to Read,” in which they declared such a freedom as “essential to our democracy.” Even President Dwight Eisenhower joined the fight. “Don’t join the book burners,” he said.
The next two decades saw significant advances in protecting free speech, as the Supreme Court struck down laws that Southern states were using to suppress the civil rights movement, while also expanding artistic freedom and broadening protections for protesters. But book banning surged again in the 1980s, when conservative groups sought to silence authors like Judy Blume, who wrote about sex and the other complex issues facing young people. The number of book challenges in schools and libraries shot up to more than 1,300 a year.
Once again, publishers, librarians, and booksellers successfully fought back. The ALA launched Banned Books Week in 1982 to counter claims that libraries were harming children. Libraries and bookstores mounted displays of challenged books to give people a chance to see what the book banners were attacking. The most significant achievement of this period was the adoption by many schools and libraries of a formal process for evaluating challenged books.
Previously, there had been nothing to stop a school official from simply pulling challenged books off shelves. Today, most school districts require a written complaint. When a complaint is filed, the school responds by forming a review committee that usually includes a professional (a librarian or teacher), a parent, and sometimes a student.
These efforts made a difference. Banned Books Week became an institution, with thousands of libraries and hundreds of bookstores participating every September. The review committees blocked most of the attempts to ban books, and the number of challenges fell steadily. In 2019, the ALA counted only 377 challenges targeting 566 books.
Over the last year, however, attacks on the freedom to read have surged. The advent of social media has allowed fear and misinformation to circulate widely, and Republican politicians are cashing in on the fear of books to get elected, specifically targeting books and authors that explore the impact of slavery and the persistence of racism in America, or describe the lives of LGBTQ people.
In 2021, there were 729 challenges targeting nearly 1,600 books. School officials began violating their policies by ordering that books be removed from shelves—sometimes dozens at a time—for “review.” Others are putting books on restricted shelves where students can’t see them or require parental permission to check them out.
However, once again, the defenders of free expression and the freedom to read are fighting back. During this year’s Banned Books Week—September 18–24—librarians, booksellers, publishers, and authors will again urge the American people to reject censorship. The ALA has just launched a national campaign, Unite Against Book Bans (uniteagainstbookbans.org), to mobilize the solid majority of people who oppose efforts to remove books from schools and public libraries.
The long history of book banning in America gives us reason to hope that the freedom to read will prevail—but only if we fight for it.
Christopher M. Finan is executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship and the author of How Free Speech Saved Democracy.