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Book Bans Are on the Rise, but Students Are Fighting Back

Some students are speaking out at local board of education meetings and in state houses, and some are filing lawsuits.

In February, the Forsyth County Board of Education meeting room was, in one board member's opinion, "a packed house." Members of the Georgia community had gathered to discuss a variety of issues, but the hot topic was the removal of certain books from schools across the school district. 

Students and other community members approached the podium to question why the political views of some parents were impacting their education and the reading material presented in their schools. But those parents who told the board they were concerned about the teachings in these books drew thunderous applause. 

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It was just the latest in a string of contentious board meetings on the topic over the past year, resulting in some adults possibly going too far. Shivi Mehta, who will be a sophomore at the Alliance Academy for Innovation in the fall, has attended multiple board of education meetings in the past year and said some adults have made her feel uncomfortable at these sessions.

"Concerned parents started coming up and hassling people like, 'Why are you pro-socialism?'" Mehta said, remembering her experience in the parking lot outside of the first board meeting she attended in June 2021. "People with iPads came up and took pictures of us… I remember being kinda freaked out by it."

"I always knew there was stuff here, but it was really eye-opening to see it in person," James Liming, who will be a senior at Denmark High School in the fall, said about that June meeting.

Mehta said the behavior from some of the adults outside these board meetings was alarming enough that a police officer gave the students his card and offered his assistance in case they ever felt harassed.

"It's sad that he actually had to come over and say that to us because these are adults."

This treatment is illustrative of fights in local school boards across the country, where parents -- many of whom were already motivated to take action by the mask policies of the last two years -- and other community members are fighting what they believe is inappropriate content for children. While some people are speaking out against diversity, equity and inclusion groups in schools, others are seeking to override educators in removing books, many of which deal with topics like racism, gender identity or sexual orientation. Students, meanwhile, are taking action and making their voices heard, even if some adults aren't listening. 

A hardcover version of the book All Boys Aren't Blue

All Boys Aren't Blue has been challenged or banned in various school districts across the US.

Zach McAuliffe/CNET

This issue has raged since last summer, with critics rallying against the idea of critical race theory. It's an academic concept that looks at the role that systemic racism plays in today's society, although it isn't taught in K-12 classrooms. Regardless, government officials in some states have reacted by calling for the removal of certain books from schools. Some school districts, not wanting to draw any attention, have quietly acquiesced.

Georgia passed Senate Bill 226 in April, making it one of the latest states to allow for the removal of "obscene material" from public schools. Other states, like Florida, Tennessee and Utah, have passed similar laws. 

The Georgia bill bypasses the previous process, in which trained professionals would review books. It also requires principals to review all complaints by parents on books within seven days and decide on whether or not to remove a challenged book in three days.

But the debate is having a different impact on students. Mehta's and Liming's experiences at education board meetings over the last year drove them to become more involved with Students for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, a group started last year to help promote the diversity, equity and inclusion policy in Georgia's Forsyth County School District. 

"As a brown, female person, this is something that affects me," Mehta said. 

Historical roots of book bans 

The recent push to challenge books isn't new, and America's history with bans actually stretches back to the colonies. When William Pynchon, a colonist and founder of Springfield, Massachusetts, was accused of heresy by the Massachusetts Bay Colony, his critique of puritanical Calvinism, called The Meritorious Price of Our Redemption, was burned on the Boston Common. The pamphlet is considered the first book to be banned and burned in the New World.

The Comstock Act of 1873 made it a criminal offense to sell, own or give away a book that contained obscenity. In the 1930s and '40s, textbooks written by Harold Rugg faced criticism for being perceived as "communistic" and "anti-American." The American Library Association said the Harry Potter series topped the list of most challenged books in the US in the 2000s for discussing witchcraft and magic. 

The Supreme Court has pushed back against book challenges. In 1976, the court ruled in Minarcini v. Strongsville City School District (6th Circuit) that school officials may not "winnow" the books in a school's library because the officials don't like the material within the books. In 1982, the court made a similar ruling in Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District v. Pico, writing that officials can't remove books from schools "simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books."

Board members with their hands raised in a public vote

In 1976, the Island Trees School Board voted to remove several books from the school curriculum, including Eldridge Cleaver's Soul On Ice. This would led to the 1982 Supreme Court case Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District v. Pico.

Jim Peppler via Getty Images

But that hasn't stopped parents and government officials from taking action. Many books are removed because some legislation bars schools from teaching "divisive concepts." These concepts range from the idea that one group of people is superior to another based on their race or sexuality, to the notion that traits such as a hard work ethic are racist or sexist. While some states and school districts are limiting these ideas, other school districts in states like Maine and Vermont are expanding their curriculum by requiring students to take African American history courses or proposing anti-racism programs.

According to PEN America, a nonprofit organization that defends free expression through literature, more than 1,000 titles have faced removal pending an investigation, as well as outright removals and prohibitions from schools between July 2021 and March 2022. While these measures might not result in an outright ban of a book, they can result in certain pages being unteachable or teachers abandoning lesson plans, according to Reflector.

The challenges rarely follow the normal protocol. PEN America found only about 4% of total bans were the result of formal requests. The vast majority came after public comment at school board meetings or after a nearby school district banned a book. 

Students, however, are rarely involved in these decisions.

Jack Lobel, a recent graduate of Irvington High School in New York and a communications adviser with the group Voters of Tomorrow, said that in his experience with the organization, which has chapters in states like Texas and Virginia, he hasn't come into contact with many students in support of these measures, either. 

"Student perspective is important," Lobel said. "It's not only us missing out, but it starves societal change when we don't read these books."

Parental control versus wider perspective 

Moms for Liberty is a nonprofit organization that has been at the forefront of the book-banning effort. The organization, founded in 2021, aims to unify, educate and empower "parents to defend their parental rights at all levels of government." 

Tiffany Justice, co-founder of Moms for Liberty, said she thinks members of the nonprofit have spoken to different student-led organizations, but she didn't name any organizations. She said parents are responsible for raising their children, and so their perspectives on these issues need to be weighed.

"My son would eat Oreos for breakfast, lunch and dinner," Justice said. "As a 10-year-old, he's probably not in the best position to be making those kinds of judgments."

Chris Ferguson, a licensed psychologist and a psychology professor at Stetson University in Florida, researched banned and challenged books and found that they tend to benefit students and their community.

"There was actually a positive link between reading these books and civic engagement," Ferguson said in an interview. "So kids that read more of these sort of edgy books tend to be more civically involved."

For the research, Ferguson asked 282 students between the ages of 12 and 18 whether they read any of the banned or challenged books from a list of 30. Some of the books on the list are And Tango Makes Three, The Perks of Being A Wallflower and To Kill a Mockingbird, all of which are challenged or banned in various school districts in states like Kansas or Texas.

A paperback edition of To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird was one book Chris Ferguson used in his research.

Nate Parsons via Getty Images

Further research shows that students also benefit from seeing themselves and outside perspectives reflected in the books they read.

Colorín Colorado, a research-based organization that provides information to educators and families of English language learners, wrote that students benefit from seeing what the organization calls "mirror books" and "window books." Mirror books reflect different aspects of a student's identity, like their family, gender, race or ethnicity. Window books show a world that is different from the one students inhabit. Both of these types of books are said to help students build community, increase their empathy and push back against prejudice.

"Kids of minority backgrounds, like James and I, we benefit from seeing ourselves represented in literature and in books," Mehta said.

Justice said her group doesn't want to ban all books from schools for all age levels. But she didn't specify whether her organization had criteria for what kinds of books are appropriate for which grades. She did say she would understand if a book like the Kite Runner -- which has been banned or challenged in various school districts in states like Florida and Texas -- is taught in an AP English course. 

Ferguson said that he's fine with parents making decisions for their children, but his research shows parents shouldn't be as worried about what their children are reading at school.

"The evidence we got from that did not support the idea that we need to be hyper vigilant about protecting kids," Ferguson said. "Kids can read books and they're not going to be radically changed, for the most part."

Listening to students

Despite students feeling like they aren't being heard and like they're being threatened by the adults in the room, they are showing up to government meetings to make their concerns known.

"I'm openly queer, openly transgender, and so it really hits close to home when people are like, let's not have diversity," Liming said. "I am, in my own way, diverse, so if we don't have diversity, where do I go?"

Ohio's House Bill 327, which prohibits the teaching, advocating or promoting divisive concepts in schools, is still being discussed, and students have shown up to the statehouse to make their voices heard.

Maria Ionno, a high school student from Grandview Heights, Ohio, presented her thoughts to the Ohio House of Representatives at a public hearing in September. She wrote that if Ohio's HB 327 passes, students won't be given the tools to form their own educated opinions. "We will have a society built on dishonesty," Ionno wrote. "As students, we deserve to have multiple viewpoints when learning about different ideas that have shaped the country we call home."

At the same meeting, Christian Pearson, a high school student near Columbus, Ohio, asked government officials that if students aren't being taught that something like slavery is evil, "Why are we going to school at all?"

While some students are frustrated with the process and the harassment they feel from speaking out against these measures, others are taking further steps. 

Stack of books that includes Between the World and Me, The Handmaid's Tale, Brave New World, V for Vendetta, Y: The Last Man and Saga

Books and graphic novels both face scrutiny over whether they should be allowed in US schools.

Zach McAuliffe/CNET

In February, two students in Missouri filed a lawsuit against their school district for removing eight books from their school library. The lawsuit calls the removal of the books a "violation of Plaintiffs' constitutional rights." 

In New York, students meet weekly in Zoom meetings called the Intellectual Freedom Teen Council, held by the Brooklyn Public Library, to discuss what they can do about book challenges across the country. The library also hosts a project called Books Unbanned to help teens read what they like and to form their own opinions.

According to the Texas Tribune, Texas students are forming banned-book clubs to read books like The Handmaid's Tale and In the Dream House, both of which are challenged or banned in various school districts in states like Texas and Kansas. 

Lobel's organization Voters of Tomorrow has sponsored book drives in states like Texas to give away hundreds of copies of books like Beloved and Maus, which are challenged or banned in school districts in states like Texas and Tennessee.

But Liming said these measures wouldn't be necessary if adults heard what students were saying.

"I feel like if they actually fully listened to what we were saying they would understand where we're coming from," they said.