‘This is about censorship’: Lawmakers, experts debate the impact and consequences of book bans
‘It’s not just a Pennsylvania issue, it’s a national movement to ban books, censor, and also totally dismantle our public school system,’ Muth said
(Photo by Max McCoy/Kansas Reflector)
Banned Book Week is an annual, week-long event to recognize intellectual freedom and draw attention to the harm — both historical and contemporary — of censorship. This year, with book bans on the rise nationally, Democratic state lawmakers from both chambers gathered at the Capitol to hear from educators, parents, and policy experts about the impact of efforts to ban certain books from public school libraries throughout the Commonwealth.
State Rep. Paul Friel (D-Chester), issued a dire warning to his fellow lawmakers attending the hearing.
“Our safe places are under attack,” Friel said. “Our freedom of speech, our diversity, our history, is under attack. And we cannot allow those who truly do not believe in democracy or freedom to succeed, to decide whose story gets told.”
Friel, who is the prime sponsor for House Bill 1506, a bill that would create a uniform appeal system for the restriction or removal of books or other educational materials, said groups created to challenge access to certain books do so “under the guise of parental rights.”
“This is not about parental rights,” Friel said. “This is about censorship. It’s about marginalizing people. It’s about marginalizing communities. It’s about marginalizing ideas. And I’ve said this many times, parents absolutely have the right to determine what is appropriate for their child. They just do not have the right to determine it for everyone else’s.”
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Keith Willard, a social studies teacher from Central Bucks School District — who stressed he was speaking for himself, not on behalf of the district — echoed Friel’s comments about the motives of groups such as Moms 4 Liberty.
“Groups argue that certain books are ‘inappropriate’ for students, and they talk about ‘parental rights,’ but often, the targeted books are ones that address issues of diversity, inclusion, and LGBTQ+ identities,” he pointed out.
Willard detailed for lawmakers how he became the target of a right-wing attack in 2021 after a collection of 50-60 LGBTQ+ books in his classroom, which were acquired with funds from a local educational nonprofit and in collaboration with school librarians, were misrepresented by right-wing groups on social media.
“Political extremists trespassed into my classroom after-hours, created a video of the library that they set to creepy music, and then superimposed books into the library that are not in my collection when they didn’t find the controversial titles they had hoped to, such as ‘Lawnboy’ or ‘Gender Queer,’” Willard said. “This was floated on right-wing social media.”
Willard added that the video continued circulating on right-wing social media, where new lies took shape, insinuating that he was grooming children and offering students extra credit to attend pride events.
“Right-wing groups such as ‘Moms 4 Liberty’ in Bucks [County] have used misinformation and fear tactics to gain influence in the Central Bucks community and others throughout the commonwealth,” Willard said. “They spread false narratives about the content of certain materials taking one line or excerpt, to nullify the value of an entire work. These books are not even being read by these book-banners. The book-banning effort is a highly organized political campaign to whitewash public education.”
Moms 4 Liberty, which has been designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, has led efforts across the country, including in Pennsylvania, to systematically remove Black history, LGBTQ+ history, and more from public school curricula.
The efforts of groups such as Moms 4 Liberty “has created another layer of censorship,” Willard noted. “That is, the pressure on teachers who feel compelled to self-censor in the face of tension from external groups, unsupportive administrators, or even parents.
Willard said the fear of backlash or potential consequences to job security has led teachers to reconsider introducing materials that hate groups consider “controversial,” even if the materials have legitimate educational value, and promote greater empathy and understanding.
Deborah Gordon Klehr, executive director of the Education Law Center of Pennsylvania, a legal advocacy nonprofit, said that Friel’s bill “establishes a good balance” of protecting parental rights while also protecting the First Amendment rights of students.
“It maintains and enforces school district book review processes while offering a neutral body — the intermediate units — for the appeals processes, which will de-politicize the process and ensure that final decisions are made by trained educators,” Klehr said.
Klehr also praised Senate Bill 926, sponsored by state Sen. Amanda Cappelletti (D-Delaware), which she said “prohibits libraries and school libraries from removing books because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval, and withhold funds from library entities that practice unlawful censorship.”
State Rep. Darisha Parker (D-Philadelphia) expressed anger and frustration that lawmakers had to hold Thursday’s hearing at all, questioning why so much emphasis was being placed on politicized efforts to challenge books rather than prioritizing legislative efforts to improve education, provide proper nutrition, and otherwise support children across the Commonwealth.
“What we should be doing is making sure that we fight for the decency, and the proper education, and making sure that our kids get the proper education that they’re supposed to be having,” Parker said. She added that reading is how she learned about her Black history and culture growing up.
“We need to be encouraging our kids to give them the values of reading, of writing … We need to be encouraging them to get the proper education,” Parker said.
In her closing remarks, state Sen. Katie Muth (D-Montgomery) connected efforts to ban books to efforts to privatize education in Pennsylvania and elsewhere.
“This is an effort to fearmonger,” Muth said. “It’s not just a Pennsylvania issue, it’s a national movement to ban books, censor, and also totally dismantle our public school system.”
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