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Nationwide effort to ban books challenges freedom of speech


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Judy Woodruff: Advocates are sounding the alarm about set of measures that they say target teaching and writing related to LGBTQ issues, race and, more broadly, freedom of speech.

Around the country, efforts to ban specific books or even whole categories of books are on the rise.

Jeffrey Brown has a conversation for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Amanda McClanahan, Iowa Resident: Can you tell me, does equity and inclusion also include incestuous relationships?

Jeffrey Brown: Contentious school board meetings.

Amanda McClanahan: Child-adult sex and books that promote pedophilia.

Jeffrey Brown: And controversial decisions to remove books from the curriculum.

Political campaign ads.

Woman: It was some of the most explicit material you can imagine.

Jeffrey Brown: And moves in state legislatures to target subject areas and even penalize librarians who keep titles on their shelves. Books especially focused on race and LGBTQ issues are being challenged, in some cases taken off school and public library shelves.

The American Library Association says it received 330 reports of book challenges in the fall of last year, more than double the amount received for all of 2020. And PEN America, a free speech advocacy group, reports that, since January 2021, 174 education-focused legislative bills were introduced in 40 states that target content in a variety of ways; 162 of those target K-12 education.

And it's spreading to public universities, with bills explicitly directed at higher education. PEN America recently announced a new Book Defense Fund, with seed money from Penguin Random House CEO Markus Dohle to educate the public and partner with local communities to fight book bans.

There's a long history of book controversies in this country, says PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel, but this feels different.

Suzanne Nossel, CEO, PEN America: It's an intensification, far more book bans sprouting up all over the country than we ever saw before, more formalized efforts. They are not just a challenge in an individual school system or library, but legislation being introduced in statehouses that would affect the availability of books all over the state in every school and library.

The ferocity of the debates and the link to larger political tensions and polarization, it's inflaming communities, and that's something we haven't seen before.

Jeffrey Brown: What books do you see most affected? What -- where's the impact?

Suzanne Nossel: It's overwhelmingly books by and about people of color and LGBTQ individuals. So, it can be stories about a transgender, kind of coming-of-age story, stories about slavery, about Black Americans and the Black experience and racial injustice in this country.

So, those kinds of narratives that are something other than kind of a pure, very traditional what some people might think of as a standard, old-school American story.

Jeffrey Brown: And I'm sure you have thought about sort of, why now? I mean, what happens in the culture to bring something like this to the fore?

Suzanne Nossel: I think it's a product in part of demographic and political and cultural change that is afoot in this country. We're becoming a much more pluralistic country, without any one single dominant racial group, and there's a backlash to that.

There's a sense that something is being lost, that the way people grew up, the stories that they read, the world that they saw decades ago is changing, and maybe changing too quickly, and that can be seen as threatening.

Jeffrey Brown: Because it is true that the book publishing world, school libraries around the country are -- have in recent years introduced more books around gender issues, around race issues.

Suzanne Nossel: I think that's part of it. It's also -- there's also a level at which this is politically manufactured. There is an effort to gin up support for certain parties, certain ideologies.

There's a lot of frustration among parents after the last couple of years with schools being disrupted during the pandemic, debates over masking. And this is kind of a vein that they have tapped. You know, we think about a pocketbook issue that affects somebody at home. This is a backpack issue.

Jeffrey Brown: But it is also still the case in this country, for the most part, that the education system is local. Public libraries are local. Who decides?

Suzanne Nossel: You know, there are very well-established patterns. Typically, it's librarians who make choices about what to purchase. It's teachers and principals who decide what's going to be on the curriculum. Parents can be part of a school board. They can come to a PTA meeting. If they have concerns, they can raise those.

You know, this is something different.

Jeffrey Brown: We are focusing right now, for the most part, on recent challenges from conservatives. But I know your organization has also done a lot of work around universities, education system on challenges from the left.

Is our country now politicized in this way, in the way we look at books?

Suzanne Nossel: Yes, I worry that sort of free speech is losing its grounding on both the right and the left. On the left, we see a lot of people, and particularly in a rising generation, who see free speech as kind of a smokescreen for hatred, as just a way of sheltering those who victimize and protecting bigotry, legitimizing bigotry.

They have lost a sense of why it is that free speech protections are so fundamental to the movements that they're trying to wage, whether it's for racial justice or gender justice or climate justice. You need free speech protections in order to go to battle on those issues and be able to put forward your perspective, to challenge authority.

So that's happening on the left. And then, on the right, we see this kind of startling invocation of the means of government, the power of government, legislation, to dictate on the basis of viewpoint what can be in a school curriculum, what even can be taught in colleges and universities.

Jeffrey Brown: I mean, it's interesting, isn't it? Because if you think about writers and books through history have been revolutionary, they have been used as weapons, they have been used to push ideas forward. But you're seeing books being weaponized in a different way.

Suzanne Nossel: Yes, I mean, I think it's an illustration of just how powerful books are. But we sort of think, in the digital age, is anybody still reading? Do these books still matter?

They still matter. And that's what we see in these battles.

Jeffrey Brown: All right, Suzanne Nossel of PEN America, thank you very much.

Suzanne Nossel: Thank you.

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