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How book bans threaten democracy

The restrictions are escalating into threats to defund public libraries.

Books stacked on a table with an American flag in the background.
Copies of banned books from various states and school systems from around the county are seen during a press conference by US House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) at the US Capitol on March 24, 2023 in Washington, DC. Jeffries spoke out against the recently passed Parents Bill of Rights Act and the banning and censorship of books in schools.
Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images
Fabiola Cineas covers race and policy as a reporter for Vox. Before that, she was an editor and writer at Philadelphia magazine, where she covered business, tech, and the local economy.

A popular saying is that public libraries are the last bastion of true democracy.

At the library, patrons aren’t really expected to pay for anything; they can use the library’s free services, from unlimited wifi to job application support; and, of course, the thousands of books libraries hold are available to anyone.

But in recent months, Republican state lawmakers and local elected boards in states including Texas and Missouri have threatened to remove library funding as a way to control what materials patrons can and cannot access.

In August 2022, Missouri lawmakers passed a law establishing new standards that libraries must meet to secure state funding. The standards banned any material containing “explicit sexual content.” According to the law, children should not be able to access such content at school. A teacher or librarian who made such material available to children could face jail time and or a fine of $2,000.

Free expression advocates sounded the alarm, but legislators did not stop there. In February 2023, Republican House lawmakers in the state voted to remove $4.5 million of library funding from the state budget, in what was seen as retaliation to an ACLU lawsuit against SB 775. Though the funding was ultimately restored to the budget in a subsequent state Senate vote, librarians told Vox the threat still created a chilling effect.

The funding threats didn’t come out of nowhere. They are an outgrowth of book bans in public schools. When anti-book crusaders are unsuccessful at banning certain materials, lawmakers and board leaders escalate the fight and threaten to remove funding for libraries altogether.

In this episode of The Weeds, we dig into threats to defund public libraries and the growing movement to ban books at schools and libraries across the country. Cody Croan, an administrative librarian in Missouri and the legislative committee chair of the Missouri Libraries Association, talks about what he’s seen on the ground. Kasey Meehan, the program director for Freedom to Read at PEN America, tells us what this new level of censorship means for American democracy.

Below is an excerpt of our conversation, edited for length and clarity. You can listen to The Weeds on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get podcasts.

Fabiola Cineas

So the Missouri House stripped the funding, but the Senate did ultimately restore it. Is the threat actually gone?

Cody Croan

I actually don’t have an answer for you on that. So immediately, the threat is gone. I see no reason why the funding that got restored would be removed after the fact. So the only other step that I’m aware we’re waiting on is for the governor to sign all of the budget bills.

I sure hope that the conversations we had with legislators clarified what was going on and that there won’t be this initial reaction to just straight-up remove our funding.

I do think that we could see some other legislation that surrounds this idea of no longer trusting their libraries to ethically provide materials to their communities. Those are things that I’m going to be watching for.

And the thing that I have to go back to is these libraries were put together and voted on initially. Maybe they might have been put together 50-plus years ago, so by a whole other generation. But they have remained in place. They were voted by the people to be put together. They voted to have a tax to support that library. And then the state decided that it was important for the state to also provide some funding to the state’s libraries, because if a community recognizes the importance of a library within itself, the state recognizes that that is important as well. The state won’t start a community library for them, but it will support them. And that’s important to know. And that is in our state constitution, that library funding is provided for a library that is created within a community.

Fabiola Cineas

Can you just talk about the connection between book bans that are happening in school classrooms, in school libraries, and how they are connected to what we see the state legislature doing in Missouri?

Cody Croan

Sure. The book bans are specifically connected to that Senate Bill 775 that got passed last year; they are the schools’ response to getting back to interpreting what the intent behind the law was. And so you see several school districts out in St. Louis, I know one here near the Kansas City area, that have removed books. I don’t know the specifics of them, but I can imagine it’s not too far off base to say that someone came to the school with a list of books and a complaint saying that they disagree with this book being on their shelves.

With the law in place, last year, the schools most likely saw that it was better to remove the materials first and to evaluate them later than to put any of their employees or any organizations that are associated with them at risk of having this law applied to them.

But at the end of the day, when you start removing materials that you brought into the collection based on your collective development policy, which I’m certain that schools have — those school libraries have their collection development policies — if you have a policy on that, you need to stick to your policy. Otherwise, you’re making exceptions off the cuff and at the behest of the loudest voice. And when you listen to the loudest voice, it’s not always the best for everyone you’re serving. And when you serve a large community or even a small community of students, they themselves are diverse. And it’s important to recognize that you need to have something in your collection for everyone.

You’ll see schools say, well, if we remove it from the school library, they can still access it from the public library. Again, the problem is can they actually get to the public library to access that material? That’s not a substitute, because there are all sorts of other barriers, whereas [when] they’re at school, they have the opportunity to visit their library there. They have to go to school legally. They’re required to go to school and get an education. So having the materials that they can see themselves in is important for schools to fulfill and make available as well.

Fabiola Cineas

So let’s talk numbers. How many book bans have you all tracked, whether you want to talk about 2023 or in the past two or three years?

Kasey Meehan

We at PEN America have been tracking instances of book bans in public school and school libraries. The other folks, like the American Library Association, are looking at books that are being challenged in public libraries. But for PEN America ... since 2021, we’ve been tracking instances of book bans. And we do see kind of continuous increases in the books that are being challenged and removed from our public schools.

So in the first half of this school year, which our most recent report speaks to, we counted over 1,400 instances of book bans. And for PEN America to record a book ban, there has to be some sort of public, publicly accessible data out there. So either it’s been reported locally by journalists or it’s been put on a district website that’s publicly available.

So this idea that we always say we’re likely undercounting this quite significantly and that there are likely many books that aren’t even being publicly reported for us to record.

The thing that I think doubles down on that alarming number is within those instances of book bans. That’s about 800 unique book titles.

So there are 800 books across the country in just the first half of the school year that are being deemed, as, you know, no longer appropriate or, have been removed from, you know, circulation as part of this movement.

Over the last year and a half since we started tracking book bans, we’ve seen, you know, about over 4,000 total instances of book bans from fall 2021 through fall 2022.

We’ll have another kind of end-of-the-year report, which will look to this entire school year. And our preliminary sense is that we will continue to see increased and high-end numbers of book bans.

Fabiola Cineas

So I feel like a lot of this conversation is about, on a foundational level, just American society. What kind of country do we want to create for children, and what do we want them to have access to in the process? So what would you say is the connection between books and reading and democracy more broadly? And then how are these book bans threatening those connections?

Kasey Meehan

I think we see the efforts to ban books as deeply undemocratic. That book banning imposes restrictions on students and families based on the preferences of a few. ... I speak to this idea that it’s a coordinated movement and within that it’s really a vocal minority here, that we’re not talking about everybody. A majority of folks disagree with book banning. I think a majority of even parents would see that they would like to make decisions for their own kid, but not necessarily impose their views on everyone’s child who’s in a given public school. So I think what we see is undemocratic. I think we also see the way in which schools, again, are intended to serve the educational process by making knowledge and ideas available and ensuring that there are books available regardless of personal or political ideologies.

So, moving forward, I think we would love to see a place where all students have that freedom to read and the freedom to access a diversity of views and stories, and to see themselves and to see others with different lived experiences reflected in books. That is our hope, is that we can kind of bring us back to a place where that freedom to read, that freedom to learn, is really centered in these conversations and is brought back to public schools and other institutions that serve that intended goal.

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