Emboldened by many successful efforts to censor books in schools, Christian-right activists are expanding their efforts to target public libraries, according to research by PEN America, an organization that promotes free expression and literary human rights.
The subject matter discussed in the books being banned typically includes sex, racism, or LGBTQ issues.
“I am quite convinced that this really did begin with school libraries and then kind of made a jump to public libraries, but there has been a contingent out there who's been attacking public libraries for a long time,” Jonathan Friedman, PEN America’s director of free expression and education programs, told TYT.
In a new analysis, PEN America found that censorship activists had managed to ban 1586 different books across the country between July 1, 2021, and March 31, 2022, including 197 titles that were banned from public libraries.
According to the report, 41% of book bans originated with government officials. The report calls that number “an unprecedented shift in PEN America’s long history of responding to book bans, from the more typical pattern in which demands for book removals are initiated by local community members.”
Besides trying to formally ban books from libraries, some far-right groups have encouraged members to find other means to remove disfavored books from public view. One organization called CatholicVote launched an initiative in June called “Hide the Pride” in which activists were encouraged to check out or hide LGBTQ books from Pride Month displays. On its website, the group touted photos from “numerous participants” showing depleted shelves.
Christian-right activists have also begun making unsubstantiated accusations against librarians, smearing them as sexual predators, Friedman said.
“We’ve also seen in some districts some librarians experiencing online harassment or criticism that a librarian who puts a book in a library that has any sex in it whatsoever is a groomer, or interested in spreading pornography,” he said.
Much of the harassment librarians are facing appears to be motivated by people trying to exclude LGBTQ people from the public square, but far-right groups have also been targeting books that deal frankly with fictional and true stories of racial injustice. According to PEN America’s research, 22% of censored titles address issues of race and racism, including 42 children’s picture books about historical figures Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Duke Ellington, Cesar Chavez, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, and Nelson Mandela.
Some books that deal with racism have been banned due to critiques from the left. To Kill a Mockingbird, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and even King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, for instance, all use the n-word. But the current wave is emanating almost entirely from the right.
“It’s not obvious to me that it is necessarily being coordinated nationally by one person or one organization,” Friedman said. “But one of the new features is that a lot of times, once a book is challenged in one state, it will soon be challenged elsewhere once a new tactic or demand is made in one state by one group.”
The laws and policies being propagated by the activists and Republican elected officials in various states appear to occasionally sweep up books that they are not intending to target. Last week, a school district near Fort Worth, TX, attracted national attention for temporarily removing a graphic novelization of The Diary of Anne Frank as well as the Bible.
Christian nationalist hosts of the Fox program “Outnumbered” reacted angrily on Thursday to both books being banned but placed particular outrage on the censorship of the Bible, which they blamed without evidence on progressives. The Bible includes numerous references not just to sex, but to rape and incest.
“Taking the Bible out of schools then furthers the political goal that we know already exists as they want to, on one side of the political aisle, remove things like, you know, the Pledge of Allegiance and things that have the word God,” co-host Harris Faulkner said. The pledge, of course, was created well into the nation’s history, with the word “God” only being inserted in the 1950s by anti-Communists.
“Every day without the Bible is a day lost,” co-host Emily Compagno said. “And that Bible should be back on the shelves.”
None of the Fox broadcasters seemed to realize that the school district was enforcing policies demanded by Christian right activists and Texas Republican legislators.
“This Bible situation is so unusual, but yes, Free Speech 101 is do you really want to create this standard and rule that’s going to give unbridled discretion right now to someone in elected office who you agree with politically, but how might they use it in the future in ways that could be used against the things that you believe in as a citizen?” Friedman said.
TYT National Correspondent Matthew Sheffield is a writer and analyst who has focused on right-wing extremism. You can find him on Twitter @MattSheffield.