Jonathan Friedman: Book bans part of coordinated assault on public education
Jonathan Friedman is the director of free expression and education programs for PEN America, a group that has become all too familiar in the last year. Their research into the nature and form of book bans has been invaluable. Friedman sets out some historical background, then explains what’s different right now.
Demands to ban books in schools are not new. But what is new is the level of organization and coordination driving it.
We are now seeing a wide network of advocacy organizations assemble long lists of titles to be purged from school shelves and share strategies on how to embarrass, intimidate or pressure school administrators into appeasing their demands.
Our research found at least 50 of these groups working locally and nationally to advocate for book bans — some of which already have hundreds of independent chapters, like Moms For Liberty, a conservative “parental rights” organization that was founded in 2021.
These groups pressure schools and districts to circumvent established guidelines for determining what books should be used in curricula or available in school libraries. They use the rhetoric of parental rights to trump the expertise of educators and librarians, while notably ignoring the differing views of other parents and students.
Fewer than 4% of the book bans we identified were the result of detailed objections and transparent, considered processes that allowed input and deliberation among professionals and parents together — or even mandated that books be read before they are banned. Writer Dr. Farah Jasmine Griffin remarked at a recent PEN event, “People who read books don’t ban them.”
Friedman also sees how these bans fit into a bigger picture of tearing down public education.
Alarming as these bans are, they represent just one part of a broader political and cultural campaign to censor what is taught in schools. We’re in the midst of an assault on public education that rivals the reactionary panics of the Red Scare and the McCarthy era. This “Ed Scare” is not just focused on rooting out communism, but on censoring a broad range of topics with little regard for students’ freedom to read, learn and think.
This is evident in the rise and spread of educational gag orders — bills and laws aimed at restricting teaching and learning — which have targeted all the same topics, and are encroaching not only on K-12 schools, but also on what can be taught in colleges and universities.