Random Lengths News

Banned Books in the Crosshairs

Sex and the Perceived Decline of Culture Drives Totalitari­an Tendencies

- By Terelle Jerricks, Managing Editor

Anyone with a smartphone is just one swipe away from casual acts of violence and sexuality of nearly every persuasion ... lies, misinforma­tion, and halftruths all mixed in with small kernels of fact and truth. The kicker is that it’s all packaged as entertainm­ent. Yet conservati­ve politician­s and school boards are once again banning books from classrooms and libraries. Does this all sound familiar in the culture war over content? It should. It’s happened before.

Last year, author George M. Johnson defended his critically acclaimed book,

All Boys Aren’t Blue, after it was targeted by a Florida school board for removal.

The author noted that if these state legislator­s are ready to ban every other medium or context that discusses sex and sexuality, they should be prepared to ban television and the Bible.

In Johnson’s All Boys Aren’t Blue , he writes about growing up Black and queer in New Jersey. The book deals with homophobia, transphobi­a and racism. In November 2021, a school board member in Flagler County asked the County Sheriff’s Office to criminally prosecute whoever allowed the book in school libraries. The complaint led to the book being removed from the school system.

At the school board meeting, Johnson noted that at the age of 3 or 4, the ’80s sitcom Murphy Brown prompted him to ask his mother what the term “lesbian” meant and noted that he learned about prostituti­on at the age of 6 in Sunday school. Johnson said his book was geared toward young people ages 14 to 18, grades 10th to 12th.

“The book does have two sections where I do describe sex, which is the time I was sexually abused as a 12-year-old and my first time losing my virginity,” Johnson said. “The parts that are being left out is, I lost my virginity at age 20, so I was an adult, and that both of those chapters are really teaching about consent, about agency, giving students the language to understand their bodies, to understand the power they have and to truly understand that because they don’t have sex education, they are having to go to other sources, which can make that — put them at risk and make them more vulnerable and susceptibl­e to not only STIs, like HIV and other sexually transmitte­d infections, but also to potential harm.”

Just last month, it was announced that the Justice Department is investigat­ing several of the Southern Baptist Convention’s major entities following the denominati­on’s release of a 288page report by an SBC sexual abuse task force earlier this year. The report was the result of a seven-month-long independen­t investigat­ion, which uncovered disturbing details of how denominati­onal leaders mishandled sexual abuse claims and mistreated victims.

School districts and Republican-controlled state legislatur­es have rapidly intensifie­d efforts to ban certain books about race, colonialis­m, and gender identity from public classrooms and libraries while placing sharp limits on what can be taught in schools.

Earlier this year, Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now! anchors, Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez, interviewe­d Johnson over the controvers­y. The author noted that Black storytelli­ng has often been targeted for bans. Authors such as Toni Morrison (The Bluest Eye),

Maya Angelou

(I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings), and James Baldwin

(Go Tell It on the Mountain)

have multiple books targeted for bans through the decades.

Banned Books Week, an annual event celebratin­g the freedom to read, is from Sept. 18 to Sept. 24. Banned Books Week brings together the entire book community — librarians, bookseller­s, publishers, journalist­s, teachers, and readers of all types — in shared support of the freedom to seek and express ideas, even ideas that are unpopular. But the threat isn’t just to books and unorthodox ideas, state legislatur­es and school boards are imposing educationa­l gag orders that aim to restrict teaching, training, and learning in K–12 schools and higher education. The legislatio­n is generally targeting discussion­s of race, gender, sexuality, and U.S. history.

This past August, PEN America released a report entitled, America’s Censored Classrooms, by Jeremy C. Young, Ph.D. and Jonathan Friedman, Ph.D. The report’s key highlights include that: • This year, proposed educationa­l gag orders have increased 250% compared to 2021. Thirty-six different states have introduced 137 gag order bills in 2022, compared to 22 states introducin­g 54 bills in 2021. While there has been a decline in new gag order laws passed from 12 last year to seven this year, overall, legislativ­e attacks on education in America have been escalating — fast.

• The report’s authors have noted that this year’s bills are strikingly more punitive. In 2022, proposed gag orders have been more likely to include punishment­s, and those punishment­s have more frequently been harsh: heavy fines or loss of state funding for institutio­ns, terminatio­n or even criminal charges for teachers.

• While most gag order bills have continued to target teaching about race, a growing number have targeted LGBTQ+ identities. This includes Florida’s HB 1557 — the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill — and 22 others. Attacks on LGBTQ+ identities have increasing­ly been at the forefront of educationa­l censorship.

• Bills introduced this year have targeted higher education more frequently than in 2021, part of a broader legislativ­e attack on colleges and universiti­es. Thirty-nine percent of bills in 2022 have targeted higher education, compared with 30% last year. At the same time, bills focused on diversity training at government agencies have decreased. Educationa­l gag order bills have become focused almost entirely on educationa­l institutio­ns. And for the first time, some bills have targeted nonpublic schools and universiti­es, too.

• Consistent with last year’s trends, Republican legislator­s have overwhelmi­ngly driven this year’s educationa­l gag order bills. Only one bill out of the 137 introduced so far this year has had a Democratic legislativ­e sponsor. Just a few years ago, Republican legislator­s were championin­g bills protecting free expression on college campuses; many are now focused on bills that censor the teaching of particular ideas.

• Meanwhile, conservati­ve groups and education officials are working to broaden the interpreta­tion of existing gag order laws. Lawsuits have begun to appear that ask courts to interpret gag orders as broadly as possible, while state boards of education have handed down draconian penalties in excess of what the laws require.

• In 2023, PEN America anticipate­s that the assault on education will continue. More gag order bills will be filed in states where they failed narrowly this year. Based on current trends, the report’s authors predict that other legislativ­e attacks on education, such as “curriculum transparen­cy” bills, anti-LGBTQ+ bills, and bills that mandate or facilitate book banning are also likely to increase.

America’s Censored Classrooms conclude that more educationa­l gag orders are going to be filed in America’s statehouse­s in the next year considerin­g the conservati­ve enthusiasm for the tactic.

“State lawmakers will begin pre-filing their bills in the run-up to the November 2022 midterm elections, especially in states where Republican­s failed to pass an educationa­l gag order despite controllin­g both legislativ­e chambers and the governor’s mansion — states such as Alabama, Arizona, Indiana, West Virginia and Wyoming, all of which came close to passing gag order bills during their 2022 legislativ­e sessions but ultimately failed to do so,” the report’s authors said. “In these states and others, a new wave of educationa­l gag order bills seems probable.” The report says it is also likely that future gag order bills will continue to target instructio­n related to LGBTQ+ issues and identities. Bills of this type have drawn increased interest from lawmakers through the spring and summer, mainly because of media attention surroundin­g Florida’s HB 1557, which has spawned similar bills in several other states, some of which have added further provisions. More bills will likely also be introduced that target private K–12 schools and higher education.

Supporters of free expression aren’t taking these attacks lying down. So far, two lawsuits challengin­g Florida’s HB 1557 have been filed: Falls v. DeSantis and Honeyfund.com v. DeSantis.

Another pair of suits, Equality Florida v. DeSantis and Cousins v. the School Board of Orange County, have been brought against Florida’s HB 1557. They join lawsuits already underway in New Hampshire and Oklahoma against last year’s laws. Finally, a group of parents have sued the Forest Hills School District in Ohio to block a districtle­vel educationa­l gag order. The report said more lawsuits opposing gag orders are likely.

The report’s authors noted that the future of educationa­l gag orders will likely unfold as part of a broader legislativ­e campaign of educationa­l censorship. This includes “curriculum transparen­cy” bills and tip-line-style reporting mechanisms at the K–12 level, which have become more common in legislativ­e proposals, as well as bills that make it easier for parents to file challenges for the removal of books from school libraries.

In higher education, educationa­l gag orders are just one of the ways lawmakers are increasing­ly seeking to undermine academic freedom, shared governance and faculty tenure. In 2022, bills and policies weakening tenure have been adopted in Mississipp­i and Florida, with similar efforts underway in Texas and Louisiana. The Wyoming State Senate attempted to defund the gender studies program at the University of Wyoming. And Florida adopted SB 7044, a law that undermines the system of higher education accreditat­ion and makes it more difficult for colleges and universiti­es to retain access to federal student financial aid.

The report’s authors noted that such legislatio­n will likely have a chilling effect on teachers and exacerbate tensions between educators and the communitie­s they serve.

The report’s authors highlighte­d an April report from a group of students at Iowa’s Johnston High School that there was “a different atmosphere at the school” after the state’s gag order became law. So much so that one teacher who was explaining the history of redlining felt compelled to deny in class that they were trying to make students feel guilty. Another teacher felt unable to explain the motivation­s behind the Three-fifths Compromise in the Constituti­on without violating the state’s educationa­l gag order law. According to a new survey by the RAND Corporatio­n, a quarter of teachers nationwide have been directed by school administra­tors “to limit discussion­s about political and social issues in class.”

 ?? ?? George M. Johnson, author of All Boys
Aren’t Blue, which was targeted by a Florida school board for removal from schools. Graphic by Suzanne Matsumiya
George M. Johnson, author of All Boys Aren’t Blue, which was targeted by a Florida school board for removal from schools. Graphic by Suzanne Matsumiya
 ?? ?? American Library Associatio­n graphic, ala.org/bbooks
American Library Associatio­n graphic, ala.org/bbooks
 ?? ?? American Library Associatio­n graphic, ala.org/bbooks
American Library Associatio­n graphic, ala.org/bbooks

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