Reading & Literacy

State Laws Are Behind Many Book Bans, Even Indirectly, Report Finds

By Eesha Pendharkar — May 19, 2023 7 min read
Protesters read in the middle of the Texas Capitol rotunda as The Texas Freedom Network holds a "read-in" to protest HB 900 Wednesday, April 19, 2023. The bill would ban sexually explicit materials from library books in schools.
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School districts in many states are reacting to state laws that dictate the kinds of books school libraries can have. That’s led to a small number of districts temporarily or permanently removing dozens of books from school libraries.

That’s according to an April 2023 analysis by PEN America, a free speech advocacy group that tracks book bans nationwide. For that report, PEN America tracked book bans for the last six months of 2022.

Although book bans have been reported in at least 32 states, most bans between July and December 2022 were concentrated in just five: Florida, Missouri, South Carolina, Texas, and Utah.

From July to December 2022, districts across the country banned 1,477 books, PEN America found. Almost 75 percent were connected to organized efforts, mainly from advocacy groups; pressure by elected officials; or enacted legislation that often restricts “explicit sexual” or “sensitive material,” or lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity the report says. Often, individual challengers also cited these state laws as the reason a book should be removed.

In the absence of clear guidance on interpreting these laws, a handful of districts decided to review, temporarily restrict, or permanently remove hundreds of books. Three districts were responsible for 40 percent of all banned books from July to December 2022: Frisco Independent School District in Texas, Wentzville School District in Missouri, and Escambia County Public Schools in Florida together banned over 600 books in that six month period, according to the PEN report.

(One of the nation’s largest publishers, five authors of banned books, two parents, and a free speech advocacy group sued Escambia County Public Schools and its school board in federal court over restricted library books.)

In Escambia and Wentzville, PEN America found direct evidence on challenge forms or in statements from the district saying that the ban was a response to certain legislation, according to Kasey Meehan, the Freedom to Read Program Director at PEN.

PEN found that 31 percent of book bans in the last six months of 2022 were connected to legislation passed in three states: Florida, Utah, and Missouri. Books were removed temporarily or permanently because of prohibitions on certain content in schools. Some laws also threaten punishments for teachers, librarians, and administrators if they provide students access to material deemed “harmful” or “explicit.”

These laws are also used as the basis for local community members or groups to object to a book, the report found.

Florida educators self censor, remove books amidst confusion over new laws

In Florida, a trio of laws enacted in 2022 restrict instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity, prohibit educators from discussing certain topics related to race and racism, and urge librarians to “err on the side of caution” in choosing library materials.

Due to the lack of guidance from the state education department on implementation of these laws, they have led teachers, media specialists, and school administrators to proactively remove books from shelves even without any specific challenges, according to news reports and EdWeek reporting.

A rule passed in October 2022 by the Florida Board of Education says that any teachers who violate any of these state laws could have their teaching certification revoked. Because of the consequences for teachers and the lack of clarity on how these laws are enforced, Florida has become the epicenter of book banning, according to PEN America.

Alex Lanfranconi, the director of communications for the Florida Department of Education, said the state is not to blame for any confusion about the implementation of these laws.

“As we have said many times, if there is any confusion as to our laws, it is due to biased media, teachers’ unions, and political activists like PEN America who intentionally sow confusion among the public,” Lanfranconi told EdWeek.

Missouri schools banned hundreds of books over fear of criminal punishment

In Missouri, a law originally meant to protect sexual assault survivors, SB 775, was amended to include a provision making it a Class A misdemeanor for librarians or teachers to provide “explicit sexual material” to a student. The definition of “explicit sexual material” applies to any visual depiction of a range of physical attributes or acts. When the law took effect in August 2022, public school districts across the state banned hundreds of books out of fear of criminal punishment, according to PEN America.

The Missouri department of elementary and secondary education has recommended that local school leaders consult with their legal counsel to review and update their policies and procedures to ensure compliance with the state’s new and existing laws, said Mallory McGowin, the department’s chief communications officer

McGowin said district leaders were better suited to answer a question from Education Week asking whether the law made it difficult for districts to offer diverse library material.

Utah law leads to dozens of book removals, mostly LGBTQ+ books

Utah’s Sensitive Materials in Schools Act, which took effect in May 2022, “prohibits certain sensitive instructional materials in public schools.” The state attorney general’s office issued follow up guidance mandating that school districts “immediately remove books from school libraries that are categorically defined as pornography under state statute.”

That led to dozens of book removals in Utah districts, and almost half of the removed books had to do with LGBTQ+ subject matter, PEN America found.

The final responsibility of deciding which books to remove under the law resides with districts, said Ryan Bartlett, director of strategic communications for the Utah State Board of Education.

The board provided some considerations and guidelines to districts to make these decisions about books that may be considered sensitive materials, he said. The considerations included overall purpose and educational significance; age and developmental appropriateness; readability and accessibility for the intended audience; and reputation and significance of the author, producer, or publisher.

“There is no blanket mandate at the state level that requires certain titles, or books that deal with LGBTQ issues to be removed from school libraries; these decisions are ultimately made at the local level,” Bartlett said.

Districts that removed large numbers of books

These are the districts that have banned and restricted the most books, according to the report.

Escambia County Public Schools in Florida: 139 books restricted, 15 banned

Many districts in Florida have removed dozens of books due to the three laws. Among them is Escambia County Schools, which put 139 books in a restricted section that students need parental permission to access. Fifteen books were permanently removed.

One of the nation’s largest publishers, Penguin Random House, and PEN America along with five banned book authors and two parents, sued Escambia for restricting access based on viewpoint discrimination.

Books that are challenged for content that may be in violation of state law regarding pornography are restricted until the review is completed, and books challenged based on Florida’s Parental Rights in Education law—which critics call the “Don’t Say Gay” law—are restricted in elementary schools, said Michelle White, the district’s coordinator of media services. In both cases, parents can grant permission for their child to check out these specific titles.

Wentzville School District in Missouri: 220 books restricted, 17 banned

In Missouri, 11 districts were responsible for 297 book bans, but 220 of them were in one district, the Wentzville School District, just west of St. Louis, which temporarily removed those titles from school library shelves for review.

“The majority of the books that are circulating online and noted as ‘banned pending investigation’ are being returned to our shelves,” said Brynne Cramer, the spokesperson for Wentzville, told EdWeek in an email last year. “They were not ‘banned’ during the review process. The review process was to ensure our library collections are in compliance with SB775.”

As of last month, the district has permanently removed 17 books from its libraries, including titles such as Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe, and Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur, according to Cramer.

Frisco Independent School District in Texas: 350 books restricted, 88 banned

Frisco ISD in Texas is the only one among these three districts that did not start reviewing books in response to a state law, said Korinna Kirchhoff, the district’s spokesperson. . Instead, it started reviewing hundreds of thousands of titles because of increased concerns about books from parents and community members, according to the district’s website.

“Most of what we see is still driven by grassroots and, parent led or individual citizen-led challenges and advocacy efforts to ban books,” Meehan from PEN America said.

The books remained in circulation during the review, Kirchhoff said. The district ended up removing 88 books permanently, and restricted access to more than 350 books by relocating access to different grade levels after the review. The reviews took varying amounts of time, so it is not clear how many books were under review from July to December 2022, the time period on which PEN America’s report is focused. Kirchhoff said she does not believe Frisco should be included in PEN America’s list of districts banning books.

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