Transcription of the episode “Efforts to ban books escalate: Tips for resistance”

[00:00:15] Amy H-L: I’m Amy Halpern-Laff. 

[00:00:16] Jon M: And I’m Jon Moscow. Welcome to Ethical Schools. Our guest today is Dr. Richard Price, associate professor of political science at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah who explores the ways books are challenged in schools and libraries. They track censorship cases in their blog, “Adventures in Censorship: Contesting: the Right to Read.” Welcome, Richard. 

[00:00:38] Richard P: Thank you. I’m happy to be here. 

[00:00:40] Jon M: How did you become involved in anti-censorship work? 

[00:00:43] Richard P: My broad background for a while has been free speech related. I was involved for a number of years in a project that was tracking free speech at various national levels and studying that. And for a variety of reasons, I, 1) came to like reading a lot of young adult literature, middle grade literature, especially that which is LGBTQ inclusive. And because of my free speech interests, I became interested in the phenomenon of book challenges and book removals from libraries and schools and the way that impacts, essentially, a student’s right to read. So that’s the gist of it. So I’ve been doing this work for about three years now, exclusively around book challenges. 

[00:01:27] Amy H-L: Recently you wrote, “The anti diversity activists are seeking to purge entire identities from the school and often public libraries. Sexually explicit is just a pretext behind which they can hide their bigotry.” who are these anti diversity activists and what sort of materials do they want removed from libraries? 

[00:01:50] Richard P: I mean, so there’s a lot of different names, right. So some of them are Moms for Liberty groups. Those have been especially heavy targeting the voices of people of color. Here in Utah, it’s Utah Parents United, which has long been an anti -LGBTQ, anti- diversity force in our schools, or at least recently has become that. There’s a national website called No Left Turn, which is seeking to provide the organizational structure to this. So those are the major groups, but most of them kind of come out of, I think, to the extent that I know, because it’s hard to sometimes identify individuals,e ssentially it’s kind of grassroots, anti-education activism that’s been especially heavy the last few years in right-wing circles. 

[00:02:36] Amy H-L: Are these challenges mostly taking place in red states or are they more widespread?

[00:02:40] Richard P: I would say, let’s see. So I don’t love using states as the boundary because it kind of gives a false impression that it’s state-based versus… I think geography does play a role. So a lot of what I’m seeing is most of the focus, it appears to be from what we can tell, focused in suburban districts near large cities, that used to be very, very white and now have diversified to an extent, and then their schools and public libraries too offer more multicultural, diverse perspectives, especially in libraries.

 It’s not limited exclusively to red states, but that tends to be where the press attention is. Texas gets a ton of attention because it was kind of out early on this, but I have challenges to literature recently from a number of New Jersey schools, which is not a classically red state, obviously. But again, mostly from suburbs in which there is contesting, I think contested identities going.

[00:03:43] Amy H-L: Censorship efforts have a long history. You said though that the current efforts seem much more sustained and organized than many in the past. Could you talk about this? 

[00:03:54] Richard P: If we go back a ways to like the 1950s and sixties, we actually did charge people for selling books. So you could be charged with selling obscenity. Lady Chatterley’s Lover, for example, was one of the most controversial books of the 1960s. And that goes away by the late sixties, early seventies, because we moved to targeting… Obscenity law targets pornography and hardcore porn, theaters and videos develops. So what happens in the seventies and eighties is the book challenger arises.

And the kind of classic book challenger that we see most frequently is usually episodic. So a parent or an adult goes into a public library and sees a book on display, or their kid brings home a book from English class or from the library. And the parent sees it and gets outraged, whatever the book is. And they might be outraged because it has sexual themes or in 1980s, there was a lot of concern about witchcraft and the accult and thus, you know, they would then push and challenge. And so if there was a broader organization behind it, it was usually a local church group or a political group.

But what we’re seeing today is a much more clear example in which these local efforts are speaking to each other through social media. So one of the reasons Texas took the forefront of this is because conservative groups there started making complaints to school boards and then using clips because the school board meetings are recorded. Some of them are still on zoom. So using clips, they would post it then, like exciting clips to YouTube. And circulate it in right-wing circles, and then sometimes get on national TV. And so that has helped create a bridge in which one parent complaining about a book in suburban Texas. Two weeks later, the exact same words are being screamed at a school district in Pennsylvania. And so you see this kind of connection and increasingly these groups are starting organizing in a way we haven’t seen, at least in recent decades. So with groups like Moms for Liberty and Utah Parents United. 

[00:06:02] Jon M: Rather than my asking why these groups are so often successful, I’ll start by asking are these groups often successful? And if so, why?

[00:06:11] Richard P: It’s a little hard to say. So again, this gets into, a little, complications of data, so acknowledging that we don’t have representative data. The material I collect almost always requires some publicity around it for me to know what’s happening. But with that caveat, I would say historically, public libraries are very unlikely to remove or restrict access to information. So public libraries, their philosophy is very much driven by the freedom of the consumer and voluntary choice and parental responsibility in the libraries. So the argument is if you don’t want your kid to read the Walking Dead comic book series, then come to the library with them and don’t let them check it out or don’t let them have a library card. You check out their stuff. 

Schools have tended to be slightly more likely. I would estimate that before this recent round, I collected somewhere around 300 to 400 record challenge records. And for the ones that have schools, which is probably about 150 to 200 total, I would say less than 15% were successful in some way, because a lot of the school’s response is similar. So you don’t like an English book and an optional reading list, the response is you don’t have to read it, like your kid doesn’t have to read it. I guess that’s my response to that.

Did you want me to address the other part of your question? Okay. So are they more successful now? It’s a little hard to tell because some of the schools are still so heavily in process, but there are definitely a number of instances where books have been removed outside of policy. So usually schools have a fairly standard challenge policy, which says someone has to submit a challenge. Some schools restrict it to people who have kids in that school. Some restrict it to parents, to community members, some allow anything. And then they’re supposed to put together a review committee, which is usually librarians, teachers, administrators, sometimes students, and outside community members, and read the book, assess it, and then issue a judgment for the superintendent or someone to act upon. A number of school districts have avoided that policy, especially with the book, Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe which has been removed preemptively in at least four or five districts I could name. It’s hard to know how many, like Virginia Beach, just removed it right away. A couple of other school districts have done that, too. And so it seems like there’s been some success, but then, you know, some places are doing the review process now. So what exactly will be the outcome is unclear. 

Just recently Leander school district in Texas completed its review, I think, of 120 books. That number might be wrong, I apologize, that were on various optional reading lists for various grade levels, and removed 11 of them. So that was fairly successful. And some of those were just removed from the reading lists and some of them were purged from the libraries themselves. So I forget how many were actually removed. 

[00:09:07] Amy H-L: So what steps could teachers or administrators take when parents or organized groups complain about books on the shelves? 

[00:09:15] Richard P: So I teach at Weber State, Utah. We have a large English Education program and I speak to their students periodically. And usually I talk about a few things with them, but the key one is make sure your your rationale is clear for all books, right. So if you’re assigning something, and for librarians, this could be a little different, but for English teachers especially that rationale is going to be key to demonstrating “here is why I chose this book.” And it’s usually best, in my opinion, at least from some of the ones I’ve read, to be willing to acknowledge what might be controversial. So if you’re going to assign “The Hate You Give,” which is a book that centers a Black girl’s experience watching her childhood friend be killed or by be shot by police officers in a traffic stop and then deal with that, you can’t pretend that the controversy isn’t there. It has lots of swear words. It discusses sex and drug use. The entire theme of the book is about, essentially, police violence. And so acknowledging that, and then engaging in what’s valuable about it. So why do you want to use this? What is the value of it? So that is usually one of the things I stress in terms of preparation.

One of the others is prepare the other titles. So teachers are are taught to have options, you know, so if a student objects or a parent objects for them, having an alternative novel that might do similar things, but have content that person might find less objectionable. So those are like the pre pieces. 

And then I usually suggest get to know your environment a little bit. So it’s kind of hard to explain that, but talk to the other teachers, make sure you understand what the kind of informal rules of the game are. And then, you know, be ready for the fight if it happens. We still shouldn’t, maybe, over-exaggerate this. This is the most extensive that I’ve ever been able to document this last six months, but it’s still, probably fairly rare that these major challenges are coming about. Be transparent, but be ready to respond and go “here’s why I did it.” 

Know your school’s policies. If the policy says that the person is, should be, you know, if they’re objecting to a book, it should be based on the entire book, then, you know, push back when it’s only a single page. 

And then I guess the other thing I tell young and potential teachers is be prepared to lose sometimes. If it happens, you may just have to accept the loss. And unfortunately that’s kind of the reality. You can only kind of prep so much. 

Sorry, I might be rambling here, but another thing that’s useful, too, is to think about ways to marshal counter push, too. So this can be especially valuable when it’s like, so I see challenges to AP or honors English class readings, and sometimes the other parents in the class will respond and say, “why would you remove a book that my child, 1) may be tested on? So this might be on the AP test and I want them to read. Your objections (the other parent’s or the other child’s) shouldn’t control what my kid has access to.” and that can be very effective. 

[00:12:17] Jon M: You mentioned being prepared to have an alternative book. So what are the actual mechanics, if a parent wants to opt out and you’re gonna say, okay, you can opt out. What do you, how do you then teach the lesson or teach the program with essentially two books instead of one? 

[00:12:35] Richard P: So that’s a little harder for me to answer because I’ve never been an English teacher. So it’s a little hard to say. I could say from the documentation that I have, it can vary, right. In some places, it might be releasing the students who have opted out to, to go to the library to do independent reading. But of course, then that becomes a problem. How do you do discussion? In some school districts, I have seen where different teachers use different books. And so the opt-out may be that they’re using different books for a similar purpose. And so the students may go to the other class for a short time. And probably the most creative way I’ve seen is in a controversy out of Watchung Hills in New Jersey, which began to use “Fun Home” by Alison Bechdel in the spring of 2019 in all of the senior English classes. The school district knew that this would be controversial. It’s a graphic memoir that is well reviewed and extremely well known. But because it’s a graphic memoir, it does have some of Alison Bechdel’s early sexual experiences. There’s an oral sex scene, something like that. And the school district, you know, is forthright and says, we knew this was going to be controversial. And when people in the community, some of whom were parents, objected, they responded that we have an opt-out. And some of the parents objected to that saying, “I don’t want my kid removed from the class.” And so the school took that seriously and modified the curriculum. They kept “Fun Home,” but they added two other LGBTQ inclusive titles that were both prose, so they didn’t have any images. And at least the one I’m familiar with didn’t have any particular bad words or anything. And now the students have the choice. They can pick one of the three books. The school guaranteed that anyone who didn’t want to read a book like “Fun Home” didn’t have to, and now everyone would still be in the room to do the discussion stuff. And then they would be able to to separate students into reading groups and discussion. They’d be able to pull comments. And so navigating that, I imagine, is quite difficult, but that was probably the most creative way I’ve seen to address this. 

[00:14:39] Jon M: Do teachers get training in pre-service education programs or in professional development on how to respond to efforts to remove books?

[00:14:49] Richard P: To the best of my knowledge, not really. So one of the things I discovered, Catherine Ross, a law professor, wrote a book five, six years ago, called “Lessons in Censorship.” It’s an exploration of First Amendment in schools, and one of the things she did was look at training for teachers at the top 20 education programs. And she found, I think, only one of them that offered any free speech training at all to faculty or staff or principal training programs in all those professional programs. And I suspect that that’s largely true because you know, at some level, one argument might be that there’s just so many things. All teachers will tell you that they do a lot of training stuff. Now there has been an attempt to try to kind of correct for some of that. So recently the National Coalition Against Censorship and the NCAC did, I think, a pamphlet. I guess it is trying to kind of give tips on how to respond to challenges. I’m trying to think of what the name of that was, and that was some of this. So that is one way to do this, but my expectation is not many, right. Yeah. They have a handbook for educators called “Responding to Book Challenges,” and that has been a recent kind of development that they have done over there.

[00:16:06] Amy H-L: Most of the books that we’ve discussed so far seem to have LGBTQIA content. What about books like “To Kill a Mockingbird” because it’s seen as a white savior book, or books that have the N- word? 

[00:16:20] Richard P: Yeah, we do see those occasionally and they come in all kinds of varieties. It’s usually phrased as quote unquote, a liberal kind of reaction to the book. And I think sometimes that’s true. And then sometimes, it’s still kind of conservative in nature. But, yeah, so there’s long been controversy around like Huck Finn. So a mother who objected to Huck Fin n n in the 1990s in Arizona actually sued the school and went up to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which said, yeah, the school doesn’t have to remove a book just because you don’t like it. And so we do see that occasionally. It’s unclear how frequently. 

” To Kill a Mockingbird” is kind of best known because it’s read more frequently. Like Huck Finn I don’t think is assigned nearly as much anymore, but “To Kill a Mockingbird” is still a very popular book to assign, especially in like eighth, ninth, tenth grade, in that range. And there are definitely challenges, which are just, this has the N-word in it. That’s. And then there are the more elaborate versions that the message of the book as a whole is out of date or offensive in some way. So because of the white savior, right. So it’s a book that depicts Black oppression and essentially Black agency is non-existent. The only thing that you could hope for in 1930s Alabama is for a kindly white lawyer to essentially save you. And many people criticize that one because both when the book was written and when it was set, there was a ton of Black activism. And today that of course might diminish that kind of concept. And so we do see that discussion. It’s unclear to me how often the challenges are coming from outside of schools and how much of it is internal to the school environment from folks who are trying to push that one of the struggles is you don’t want curriculum to become stale. You don’t want to assign a book every single year because it’s been assigned every single year. And there’s lots of new and interesting things. So that’s a very difficult balancing act, I would imagine.

[00:18:18] Jon M: You may not have a sense on this, but I’m just curious about your thoughts of whether you think that one of the reasons that Huck Finn is not assigned as much anymore is, in fact, because people are afraid to assign it because of the history of challenges.

[00:18:35] Richard P: Yeah. I mean, that definitely could be. And that’s one of the trickiest things of this kind of research. So one of the things I was asked a lot, especially before this recent few months, was well, like if books aren’t removed that often, does this really matter? And one of the responses is that we are reasonably sure, but it’s hard to measure, that there’s a degree of connection between the challenges and the controversy and self-censorship. And so if you have a teacher who is reprimanded for assigning, or just having an LGBT inclusive or Black author or a story of a Black child in their classroom library, which happens occasionally, then other teachers are going to either remove them quietly themselves or not ever put them in their library in their classrooms. And it wouldn’t surprise me. I can see another reason why Huck Finn might not be as prevalent. Because it’s older language, students don’t relate to it as well. But there’s a lot of reason to think that that happens. 

So there’s anecdotal evidence. There’s some library, research X number of librarians have done research with younger librarians, especially in schools. And they’ll talk about, like, I was reviewing this book and suddenly I hit a sex scene and I was like, I just can’t put this in there. Or I’ve heard this book has been challenged a lot, so I’d rather not buy it because of that. So yeah, that kind of soft censorship, but self-censorship can be a big influence. It’s just, unfortunately, super hard to measure because it’s hard to identify when things aren’t done.

[00:20:06] Jon M: When you were talking about some of the different controversies and you sort of said that the idea of taking out books that have the N- word is sort of ridiculous, but obviously that is something that people do say, what are some of the ways that schools can respond to that particular challenge that you’ve seen?.

[00:20:26] Richard P: So part of it has been, so I’ve seen the number of schools respond to say, like, I shouldn’t say ridiculous, that’s maybe too strong because there’s a good reason to be concerned about how material is presented. And so in, for example, the white savior piece I’ve mentioned when it came in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” it came from a family who identified themselves as Black in their challenge materials. And their kid was one of the only Black kids in the school with all white teachers, pretty much all white schoolmates. And they were particularly concerned with does this teacher know how to navigate issues of race. And I think that’s a reasonable point. I shouldn’t say it’s ridiculous just to make it about that. But usually schools respond with a couple of things. One, it’s not like we read the swear words or racial epitaphs in class. I teach my students to avoid that language and to also explain why is this word harmful and why should we not use it then? Of course the other response is when you are studying, say, so this is non- fiction, picture books and books for younger kids. There’s been a number of them recently, like “Separate is Not Equal,” I think is one of them, which is about Mexican American segregation in California in the 1940s. And it’s based on a real case. I think it’s a picture book for relatively younger grades to introduce the history of racial segregation. And some of the images show people screaming racial insults at the Mexican American children. And one of the responses from the teacher is hiding this information isn’t good. If we sanitize racism, we lie to our students. And so it’s best to engage with it and explain why it was harmful and why we should do this and that, you know, difficult questions around race, you know, have to be engaged with because unfortunately, maybe anecdotal evidence again, my worry is that most teachers avoid these subjects because they are difficult. So again, a skate around issues of race, because, you know, I don’t want to offend anyone or I don’t want to have parents scream at me, which is, you know, a bad approach to an important issue.

[00:22:33] Jon M: What role does the American Library Association, the ALA, play in these kinds of controversies? 

[00:22:41] Richard P: The American Library Association is the overarching professional group for American librarians. So you don’t technically have to be an ALA member to become a librarian, but pretty much all masters of library science schools are ALA accredited. And so that helps to influence this. And the ALA has been around since the late 1800s. Since World War II, for a lot of complex historical reasons, it has increasingly adopted a strong stance when it comes to intellectual freedom. And so it has a Library Bill of Rights, which emphasizes diverse and plentiful information within the library. Of course, there’s still going to be constraints of space and money and all of that. And as part of that, the Office of Intellectual Freedom and the ALA have a full-time office staff with at least a director and a couple of other members who take reports from libraries and teachers of book challenges and offer support behind the scenes. So they will send letters to school officials. They will offer support to librarians who are facing challenges and teachers too, for that matter. And then it has a connection, though technically it’s a separate entity, to groups like the Freedom to Read Foundation, which actually does engage in litigation from time to time, though it’s been a while, trying to push back against removal of books. And so all of this can be effective sometimes. 

So one of the elements that I talk about, is schools, and sometimes libraries, but especially schools, whether it’s curriculum or the library, is it’s a hard job. Like being a school administrator. I am sympathetic in many ways. Being a teacher is very hard, being a school librarian. You have a lot of different strings being pulled. And so when you have like 10 people showing up to the school board meeting screaming about a book, I understand why sometimes the response is “Well,screw it. What is one book?” The problem is that one book usually turns out to then be five more, then 10 more. And one school district here in Utah has been asked to remove 100 books recently. And so one of the things groups like the ALA can do is bring in pressure to suggest that there are legal limits to what you can do, yeah, suggesting lawsuits and things like that. And I’ve seen examples where that has been effective to where administrators especially have pulled back from their attempts to censor material because now they’re being pushed upon from different directions. 

[00:25:13] Jon M: Are there other organizations in addition to the ALA?

[00:25:18] Richard P: Yeah. So there are a number of other kind of institutions that do similar types of work. National Coalition Against Censorship is a pretty effective one. And that’s the one I mentioned that did the responding to book challenges handbook. And so they will do similar things. So they will take reports, they will offer support, but they also do so much more publicly. So the ALA doesn’t tend to go public with a challenge or, you know, if they make it public it’s after it already has been reported. The National Coalition, and I’m sure they do this with the permission of the people reporting, is much more likely to report it through social media in their own posts. Here is what’s happening in this district. And it’s one of the means that they bring to bring pressure. They also will lobby, will send letters explaining and going, you shouldn’t do this. Your policy says X, Y, and Z. You haven’t followed that. When we ignore policy, that creates the appearance of censorship. 

And the National Council for Teachers of English has done a lot of work around this. I’m less familiar with whether or not they do in-the-moment responses, but they definitely network with these other groups. But the National Coalition Against Censorship and the Office of Intellectual Freedom are two of the biggest examples. PEN America also does a lot of work around this. So Jonathan Friedman [of PEN America] on Twitter, especially, spends a lot of time bringing attention, and then they have also published a number of reports that have been around this. But also things like critical race theory bans. So those are kind of some of the big examples.

[00:26:46] Amy H-L: Thank you so much, Dr. Richard Price of Weber State University. 

[00:26:50] Richard P: Thank you for having me. 

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