Richmond public library display shelf with Teen LGBTQ books for education.

The Battle Over Books: Parents, Politics, and the Growing Trend of Censorship

Preliminary data released by the American Library Association (ALA) for 2023 highlights a 20% surge in attempts to censor library materials and challenge book access between January 1 and August 31, compared to the same period in 2022. This follows a record number of book challenges reported in 2022, revealing a growing trend in attempts to restrict access to certain content.

Motivation for these challenges often stems from a desire to protect children from materials perceived as harmful by proponents. Nearly half of these demands come from parents, patrons, or political/religious groups. The most frequently challenged books of 2022 cover a range of genres but often share reasons for being challenged. The top reasons that are recorded for challenges are “inappropriate” sexual content, “offensive” language, or materials deemed “unsuited to any age group.” 

While the intention to protect children is commendable, the ALA emphasizes that, according to the Library Bill of Rights, the right to restrict a child's access to library resources rests solely with parents. Censorship by librarians, even with good intentions, is considered a violation of the First Amendment's protection of constitutionally guaranteed speech. The debate over book bans intensifies as educators, librarians, and advocates for intellectual freedom stress the importance of keeping diverse perspectives in educational materials. 

In response to the rise in book challenges, Jaci Urbani, a professor of education at Northeastern University, argues that banning books does more harm than good. Urbani advocates for parents to discuss uncomfortable topics with children. She highlights the role books play in opening up conversations about difficult subjects. She suggests that handling these discussions in a mature, developmentally appropriate way allows children to learn and navigate complex issues.

Another education expert recently commented in an article from Columbia University to discuss the broader implications of this trend. Many of the recently banned books address issues related to race, gender identity, and sexuality, reflecting the ongoing American culture war. Sonya Douglass, Professor of Education Leadership at Teachers College, Columbia University, warns that such bans limit students' understanding of themselves and their peers, contributing to a narrower worldview.

Douglass argues that book bans “diminish the quality of education students have access to and restrict their exposure to important perspectives that form the fabric of a culturally pluralist society like the United States.” She sees this as a broader battle over the nation's soul, influencing what young people learn about their country, the perceived truth, and the content considered suitable for inclusion in their curriculum.

As the discussion on book bans continues, it raises questions about the impact on education and the broader implications for free speech. While some argue for the right of parents to control their children's exposure to certain content, others emphasize the importance of fostering open conversations and maintaining diverse perspectives in educational materials. The challenge lies in finding a balance that respects both parental concerns and the principles of free speech and intellectual freedom.