It’s Getting Harder to Deal With Soft Censorship

PEN America issues report indicating a huge ongoing political battle

We knew soft censorship was a problem. Now PEN America has compiled data to show just how big this particular battle has become. 

The intellectual-freedom nonprofit’s Aug. 23 report documents close to 400 state proposals it calls “educational intimidation bills.” Missouri led the nation in sheer numbers, with Texas and Oklahoma rounding out the top three. 

These proposals don’t directly ban books, lessons or curriculum. Most don’t even become law. Instead, they deploy one of a dozen broader ways PEN America identifies as chilling the discourse – restricting students’ library access, for example, or inviting parents to opt in or out of certain content. 

The ripple effects of these measures stoke fear in educators, encouraging them to pre-emptively restrict access to remain on the safe side of often-broad proposals, the report argues. 

“This rising tide of educational intimidation exposes the movement that cloaks itself in the language of ‘parental rights’ for what it really is: a smoke screen for efforts to suppress teaching and learning and hijack public education in America,” said Jonathan Friedman, PEN America’s director of free expression and education programs. 

Parents have long had access to school curricula and lessons, as well as the ability to object to some content, Friedman added. 

“But this spate of provisions dramatically expands these powers in ways that are designed to spur schools and educators to self-censor,” he said. “These bills risk turning every classroom into an ideological battleground, forcing teachers out of the profession, and jeopardizing the future of millions of students.” 

In Idaho, for example, a Republican lawmaker introduced a bill in February to hold librarians liable for students’ exposure to “harmful or obscene” materials, including anything mentioning homosexuality. The next day, before the bill even came up for debate, the Idaho Association of School Administrators sent out a list of 25 titles that might run afoul of the bill if it became law, including This Book is Gay and Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out. 

In Wisconsin, one school librarian detailed a raft of small vetoes of titles that could cause controversy, including Ashley Hope Pérez’s Out of Darkness. “The instructor said to me, ‘I can’t afford to add it because of the attention it’d bring,” the librarian told BookRiot. Other books teachers passed over included Sara Farizan’s Here to Stay, rejecting it for an all-class read since it focused on a Muslim character. “’Someone would yell about that,’ the teacher said.”

PEN America examined 392 bills introduced in state legislatures between January 2021 and June 2023, available in a searchable alphabetical index. All but 15 came from Republican lawmakers. The vast majority target K-12 schools.

“These bills spur self-censorship by making certain forms of instruction more burdensome, costly or risky,” the report states.

Many also explicitly target LGBTQ students. Nearly half of the bills detailed in PEN America’s report contained at least one anti-LGBTQ measure. In top-ranked Missouri, for example, Republican Sen. Mike Moon introduced a bill that would require schools to notify parents within 24 hours if a student said they wanted to change their gender identity or their pronouns. Similar proposals also appeared in at least eight other states, including Florida and Indiana. 

Other Missouri Republican senators introduced a “Parents’ Bill of Rights” for the Show Me State that vowed parents have the “right to inspect curricula” (a right enshrined in federal law since the 1970s) and called on the state’s education agency to create a “transparency portal” for citizens to access and review all curricula, textbooks and syllabi, as well as materials, attendance records, costs and descriptions of professional development programs. 

“Parents’ rights” is a common theme. In Texas, bills in both chambers sought to amend the state’s education code to prohibit the “infringement of parental rights,” including the “right to direct the moral and religious training of the parent’s child.” Arkansas, Georgia and Florida have all passed their own versions of a parental rights bill. 

“It’s a whole new level of fear,” Kathleen Daniels, president of a Florida professional organization for librarians and media educators, told the New York Times. “There are books that are not being selected because they have been challenged.”

One librarian in western Missouri described having two weeks to go through entire collections to weed out any title that might suddenly have become illegal. 

“We had one librarian who began pulling absolutely everything because the fear became so overwhelming,” Wentzville School District lead librarian Mernie Maestas told Coda. “Others wound up shutting down their libraries for periods of time just so they could ensure they had gone through everything.”

Taken as a whole, the rise of these bills constitutes a new phase in a “years-long campaign to incite panic and impose ideological strictures on schools,” PEN America’s Friedman said. “Their spread should not be taken lightly.”  

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Sharyn Vane

Sharyn Vane has reported and edited at newspapers in Washington, D.C., Colorado, Florida and Texas. For the last decade she has written about literature for young people for the Austin American-Statesman.

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