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Episode Transcript: Who bans books — and why?

Anisa Khalifa
This is Tested from WUNC, a look at how we're responding to the day's challenges, in North Carolina and the south. I'm Anisa Khalifa.

Across the nation, we've seen a spike in book challenges and bans in both school and public libraries in the last six months, mostly targeting books that center race and LGBT identity. At the end of 2021, Wake County had its own high-profile censorship controversy. I decided to take a deeper look into who bans books, why, and what kind of impact it has on our communities.

News Anchor (Sound Clip)
A controversial book will return to Wake County's libraries. Dozens of librarians protested when a book called Gender Queer was removed from libraries after a parent complained. The county first said the book's explicit illustrations, including nudity and sexual scenarios, don't align with the library's selection policy.

Jessica Lewis
Why do our kids have access to this obscenity in our libraries? Who is going to be held accountable for this? Let me be clear, this is not about identifying genders, this is about no matter what gender you are, these books have no business being in our libraries… You have intentionally incurred irreparable damage by stripping parental rights, forcing masks, isolation and healthy children to be quarantined when you have absolutely no right to do so. Now add to the list of failing test scores and sexual grooming.

Anisa Khalifa
That's Jessica Lewis, speaking on behalf of a group of parents at a December 7th Wake County School Board public meeting. Jessica mentioned and quoted from Lawn Boy, George, and Gender Queer, three books Lieutenant Governor Mark Robinson targeted for removal from schools after this sermon surfaced online in October.

Mark Robinson
Those issues have no place in a school. There is no reason anybody anywhere in America should be telling any child about transgenderism, homosexuality, or any of that filth.

Anisa Khalifa
Gender Queer, a graphic memoir about author Maia Kobabe's journey towards identifying as transgender, was removed from Wake County Public Library after complaints that it was pornographic. The removal was met with a wave of outrage from some in the community, and an open letter from librarians in protest. In response, WCPL announced on January 10 that they would return Gender Queer to the shelves and work on revising their removal policy.

What was unclear to me when this story broke, amid a rising wave of similar book challenges and removals across the country, was why and how exactly Gender Queer was challenged, removed, and then reinstated so quickly–and what this has to say about a broader trend. Here's Wake County Public Library Director Mike Wasilick.

Mike Wasilick
The older process, if I would look at it, I would say part of the issues that people brought to our attention, I believe this is true, is having it be more transparent, as I said, I believe it was a process that was designed… to address a local concern… So moving that forward to make this more transparent for our staff, for people within the county and people within the community. I think having more people at the table, and especially people that are working with the public on a daily basis, librarians and so on, will certainly help us understand as trends change.

Megan Roberts
It's really important to librarians to keep books and libraries, and for everyone to be able to have access to books. So this is one of our tenets of things that we just never want to see happen.

Anisa Khalifa
I talked to one of those librarians to ask how this played out from her perspective.

Megan Roberts
I'm Megan Roberts, I'm a librarian in Wake County. I'm an American Library Association member, a rainbow round table member, I served on the 2019 ALA Rainbow Booklist. Committee. And I spent about a decade doing volunteer work for the LGBT Center of Raleigh.

Book challenges and bans have been like really picking up this year. And all of the books seem to have one of two things in common. Either they have LGBTQ characters or themes, or they have people of color either in the book as characters or authors. So it's hard to hear that it's not about race, or it's not about gender, when those are the only books on the list. … And you keep seeing these, like news articles and information about other people removing books, or other books being challenged. And it kind of took me aback to see that happen… it didn't seem like something that was going to happen at home, you know, it seemed to be like, that's a problem in Texas or South Carolina, like that's not something in my backdoor, or at my workplace or in my community.

Anisa Khalifa
Book censorship is nothing new – in fact, it predates our nation. In 1650, the Massachusetts Bay Colony banned and publicly burned William Pynchon's anti-Puritan pamphlet in what's widely considered the first American book banning. A representative of the American Library Association's Office of Intellectual Freedom told me they saw an "unprecedented" number of book challenges in the fall of 2021. From September 1 to December 1, they received 330 book challenge reports, more than twice the number of reports for the entire year of 2020. Six of the top ten most challenged books in 2020 were about racism, books which not coincidentally were also on many of the antiracist reading lists being passed around that year. Complaints described these books as "divisive" or "containing an anti-police message".

In North Carolina, in just the last week, Dear Martin, about a Black student in a white school who writes letters to MLK, was pulled from assigned reading at a high school in Waynesville after a complaint. George, a children's novel with a transgender protagonist, was unsuccessfully challenged in Moore County. Last Thursday, Maus, the acclaimed graphic novel about the Holocaust, was banned by a Tennessee school district.

Here's another Wake County mom, Julie Page, speaking with ABC-11. She and eight other parents filed a criminal complaint against Wake County public schools in December. The group cited the same three books called out by Lieutenant Governor Robinson.

Julie Page
We do not believe they should be made readily available in our public school system. They are obscene, they are sexually explicit, they are R-rated if not X-rated… We felt like this is a violation of both state and federal statutes regarding obscene materials to minors specifically.

Anisa Khalifa
Who decides which books sit on the shelves of our publicly funded libraries? Is it ever appropriate to ban books? And when books are removed, or even just challenged, what impact does that have on the community?

Richard Price
I mean, I would love to, I would love to say yes, it's always wrong. Yes, it's always good, but it's just tough.

Anisa Khalifa
Here's Richard Price, associate professor of Political Science at Weber State University in Utah.

Richard Price
My research kind of broadly is around questions of censorship in a variety of ways. And in particular, through book challenges. So attempts to remove literature from schools, libraries will remove, relocate, restrict access too, like all of those kinds of count.

Anisa Khalifa
So why do you think this is happening right now?

Richard Price
So I always steal an answer from Judy Blume. So Judy Blume was, of course, a famous children's and young adult author, especially in the 70s, 80s. And you know, she's still well-beloved today. And her books got attacked a ton in the 70s and 80s. Because she was one of the first young adult authors and children's authors to start writing in the experiences and voices of kids of their day, and so not sanitizing things. So showing kids obsessed with their talking about sex, obsessed with their developing body, that kind of stuff. And in an interview with the LA Times, right around 1980, she said, Well, mostly it's, you know, when she was asked a question like that, what drives these book challenges, she said, it was fear. And ultimately, that's what I see too, … last fall, especially in you know, once schools came back into session is, you know, fear drives us in particular ways. So when it comes to representations of people of color and civil rights concerns, or queer inclusion in literature, the attack is contextually about something else. They dress it up and claim it's about swearing, or the book has sex in it. But in reality, most of this is driven by essentially parents who don't like seeing their world change and challenge. So it's something, I haven't been able to track it kind of definitively, but I would say a lot of this activity has tended to be focused in suburbs that have themselves in the last 20 or 30 years become a little more diverse, both ethnically, sexually, but also kind of politically.

Anisa Khalifa
Richard told me that they see this recent uproar as a confluence of three things: there was the nationwide moral panic about the myth that Critical Race Theory was being taught in schools, which picked up around 2019 with the release of the 1619 Project; then, the pandemic caused more tension between parents and schools with shutdowns, online schooling, vaccine and mask requirements; and in 2021, a return to in-person school in most districts.

Richard Price
Many of the same people who were ramping up attacks on schools for CRT and for vaccines, then started to publicize the supposed pornography in schools and libraries too. And so Gender Queer becomes part of that. Lawn Boy, All Boys Aren't Blue. Any book that, you know, they saw as sexually explicit, which oftentimes meant it mentioned sex or had swear words, or it had LGBTQ characters that was usually enough, was treated as porn in schools and had to be removed. And essentially, there's a lot of overlap between all three of those. And so that just becomes a perfect storm this last fall, in which we saw challenges explode everywhere. Most, you know, dramatically in some of Texas, but you know, we've seen it all over the place.

Anisa Khalifa
Yeah, it's interesting, this argument about sexually explicit material, because I vividly remember I went to high school in a small, southern In town in North Carolina, and we watched the Romeo and Juliet movie, the one from the 70s, in ninth grade English class, you know, it's got like, nudity in there. I don't think anyone's parents knew or complained about that. I certainly wasn't about to bring it up to my parents. I don't know how to talk about that. But as you said, it's covering something else.

Richard Price
I could also know there's a, there's a pretty heavy dose of kind of QAnon kind of stuff, too, which is a lot of the people who campaigned against the kind of inclusion of books, who pretend it's about sexuality, use language that is drawn very heavily from conspiracy theories around, you know, sexual assault and things like that. And so, I've been called a pedophile, and a child groomer for my defensive access to young adult material by some of these people, because … they defend even if a book doesn't have like sex or swearing, like I Am Jazz, which is a picture book about Jazz Jennings coming to terms, you know, basically talking about what it meant for her to be trans as a young girl. And so they then shift to claim well, that book is about grooming our children to sexual perversion, and questioning their gender trying to turn them trans. And so you see a lot of that language….So I would put that in there. I'm not sure it's as prevalent as the CRT, and, you know, anti mask stuff and all that, but it's a big part of it too.

Anisa Khalifa
Whenever we come up against this issue of censorship, you always talk about first amendment rights and free speech. And, you know, the ALA has said, you know, based on the 1982 case, that banning books from public libraries and school libraries violates children's first amendment rights. Would you agree with that statement? And also, like, how far does that go in terms of like, what's allowed under that umbrella of free speech?

Richard Price
So yeah, the case they reference is a case called Board of Education versus Pico. And it's a case from the 70s, in which a Long Island School District, basically members of their school board, went to a conservative activist conference about education and were handed a list of here's a bunch of objectionable titles. And one night they decided to go to the library in the middle of the night and pull all the books and then just steal them basically, and it initiated a process of not allowing the books. And when they were asked when it finally became public, they basically called the books unAmerican. The reasons why were like bizarre things. My personal favorite was one of the books someone objected to because it portrays George Washington as a slave owner. And of course, yeah, the response is he was, but they don't necessarily want kids to focus on that. So they thought it was disrespecting the father of the country kind of language. And so what ends up happening in Pico is the Supreme Court issued that decision, and I don't want to get into too much legalese, but it's a super fractured decision, where some justices say that the First Amendment restricts the removal of books from a school library, if the removal is only based upon the ideological or kind of temperamental disagreement with a message of the book, so if the only reason you're removing a book is because you don't like what it has to say or what it talks about. You know, we can think about this in the 1619 project. If your removal is only that, then that would be unconstitutional is what the court suggested.

Anisa Khalifa
Price says the decision isn't that clear-cut, however; it implied that if a book was removed based on "pervasive vulgarity" or educational suitability, that would be constitutional–and those terms leave a lot of room for interpretation.

Richard Price
Sometimes, you know, for a variety of reasons, like an elementary school might buy a book that's intended for high school, and not notice it, because you get a lot of books and you process it, put it on the shelf. And then when it's pointed out, you go, whoops, yeah, that should have been in the high school and you transfer it up there. And that is not inherently censorship. It's, you know, there's a reason why, you know, there's age appropriate stuff, there's, you know, just content, big words, whatever.

Anisa Khalifa
So getting back to free speech more generally, more broadly. As a kid that grew up in a very white public school system, and not just one, many, you know, I lived in lots of different places. And I often would come across books, not only in my school libraries, but also in my public libraries that were, you know, racist towards people like me, and also towards other groups. I'm sure there was a lot of other stuff in there that was targeted to other groups that I wasn't part of, so I didn't notice it. But is it a legitimate thing to try to limit access, especially in libraries, where children are two books that are explicitly racist, you know, or is it better to have everything available and have conversations about them, like, what is the line?... is it really a slippery slope?

Richard Price
When it comes to school libraries and public libraries, to an extent there is you know, I think there has to be a responsibility. So I have a friend who asked me to talk to some of her classes about this stuff. And she asked me, she's like, well, so let me ask if I'm part of the problem. And her example was something similar to what you gave me, which is, you know, her kid was basically reading a very kind of, you know, racially stereotypical Thanksgiving story, right. The kind that people like me, who grew up in the 80s, in at least elementary school heard all the time, you know, the pilgrims and nice people like Indians, and then got along. And so she went to them and said, ‘Are you kidding me,’ like, and so she asked me, am I part of the problem and my response is of course not, because, you know, at one level, challenges are not inherently bad. So when people ask me about this, I say, I don't mind when people challenge things, even if I think the challenge is garbage. Because I'm a big believer in democratic engagement. So, you know, showing interest in your school and fighting over it is at least democratic engagement. Now, some of them take it too far. But that's a whole separate issue. But … schools and libraries have responsibilities, right. And I like to talk about like, there's no such thing as neutrality. There’s no such thing as neutrality between inclusion and exclusion. So if you're telling me that I have to be politically neutral, in a classroom, and that means I can never talk about LGBTQ people or issues, that's not neutral, that is exclusionary, I'm supposed to treat those people as unworthy of our attention in the academic sphere. And books are very much the same way.

Megan Roberts
You know, I don't think it's the librarians job to protect any reader, children or adults.

Anisa Khalifa
This is Megan Roberts again. The librarian in Wake County. She makes the point that what ends up on the shelves is already highly curated and considered.

Megan Roberts
There's definitely something in every library that will offend any reader, any person. But that's one of the reasons I think it's so important to have books on a diverse array of viewpoints. You should find a book where people look like you, you know, where people are validating your stories and your experiences. And authors who look like you and are writing about their experience that you can identify with, everyone should be able to find that.

And not every book is for every reader. I don't want to read every book, you don't want to read every book, every book might not be appropriate for your 10 year old, every book might not be appropriate for a 16 year old. But there's probably someone out there where that book is the book they need, at that right time is the book for them.

Richard Price
The inclusion of diverse voices is not a neutral decision. It's a politically charged one. But there's no neutral in it. And the same goes with accuracy and representation of race and ethnicity, other people, disabled people, all those questions, and it does become very difficult. But in the abstract, like, I don't think of it as so much as protecting kids from racist books and images. I see it more as trying to make sure you have a modern collection that represents truth. And a lot of what you're probably encountering back in the day, and a lot of what I encountered were awful stereotypes, perpetuated by people in power. And fighting against that is worthwhile. But there is, you know, it can bleed over. And so people who attack queer inclusion in schools are claiming that, you know, they are representing truth, and then it comes down to how well they support their argument. And so I would love to say that there's an obvious like, answer to that. But ultimately, it is a difficult question.

I mean, for me, one of the things that draw drew me to this research, because most of my research is focused on queer inclusion, is the massive improvement in both the availability of LGBTQ representations in novels and other places. But also the kind of depth and complications of it. And weigh in, you know, and kind of more accuracy and representation versus the little bit of LGBT inclusion that I would have ever seen as a teenager in the 90s, which was, you know, an unhappy, gay teen, like, white guy who is 15 and kind of unhappy with the sexuality.

Anisa Khalifa
But even if a book isn't actually banned, challenges still carry consequences.

Megan Roberts
I think it's still harmful to the community to sort of put these books on notice. And to say hurtful things about the community, especially our lieutenant governor has made some hurtful comments. And I do think that affects our community. And LGBTQ youth are so vulnerable sometimes, to have that sort of additional bullying is disappointing. And as a librarian, you know, you really want everyone to be able to come to the library, and find a book that they're excited about, or a book that they need in that moment, or a book that makes them feel seen or validated, or that changes the way they think about something. And when you keep taking books out, you know, you're preventing those people from connecting with that book.

Representation is really important. And it's a way to understand yourself and those around you. And I think that matters, and everyone should be able to see themselves in a book at the public library.

Anisa Khalifa
That was Megan Roberts, Wake County Public Librarian, and Richard Price, associate professor of political science at Weber State University.

This episode of Tested was produced by me, Anisa Khalifa, and Charlie Shelton-Ormond. Our editor is Dave Dewitt. Thanks for listening.

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