Upholding Intellectual Freedom: The Fight Against Book Bans
What is the book ban?
Many parents are calling for schools to remove certain books from curriculums and school libraries as the themes make them uncomfortable and don’t align with their own personal views.
Books in the classroom are used to promote discussion and critical thinking, not to preach ideas to students and many are saying that a ban on books is unconstitutional.
Books that involve themes such as gender discussion, sexuality, racism are highest on the list of books to be banned.
A bill to stop the ban
On June 1 of this year, Senator Andrew Zwicker introduced bill S3907 which prohibits public libraries and public schools from banning or restricting access to certain books. The bill also states that any public library and public school that does not comply can result in their State Aid being withheld.
Senator Holly Schepisi made a statement on Zwicker’s bill stating that “While I agree books shouldn’t be banned, I strongly disagree with the premise that all books, regardless of content, should or must be available in every public school without regard to age appropriateness.”
It is safe to say that schools first and foremost are concerned with the safety of the children that attend it and no school would put harmful materials in the hands of a student. The issue being challenged is books that are deemed age appropriate for students, that serve a purpose in a school curriculum being banned from the classroom.
Let’s discuss this further.
A selection of banned and challenged books are seen on a table as members of City Lit Theater Company read excerpts from them during Banned Books Week 2022, at the Lincoln Belmont branch of the Chicago Public Library on Sept. 22, 2022. (Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)
Violation of the First Amendment
David L. Hudson Jr., a professor at Belmont University College of Law and states, “Book bans violate the First Amendment because they deprive children of students of the right to receive information and ideas.”
The issue of a book ban has been spoken about in the Supreme Court. While the banning of books in a school curriculum was not specified, Professor Hudson, author of The Constitution Explained stated that, “The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Island Trees School District v. Pico (1982) that books may not be removed from library shelves just because school officials find ideas in the book offensive.”
Books taught in school are not a way of preaching ideas to students but a way of starting conversations, of recognizing themes and issues. Bringing these ideas up in a safe environment, such as a classroom, allows students to improve critical thinking skills as well as participate in deep conversations.
In a statement about discussing controversial topics in the classroom, Dr. Liza Talusan, author of The Identity-Conscious Educator, states that “[shying] away from these topics, we miss opportunities to help young people explore challenging topics with people they trust…to give young people a place to ask challenging questions that help them to make sense of the world.”
School is a place for learning and navigating the real world and many of the themes in these books are things that have to do with our history as a nation, and events that children from all ages can relate to. The banning of books can also promote discrimination and make certain topics seem taboo.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Texas filed a complaint against a Texas school district stating that they “violated Title IX’s prohibition of discrimination on the basis of sex when it removed 130 books from library shelves – at least three-quarters of which featured LGBTQ themes or characters.”
ACLU attorney Chloe Kempf says that the bans “send a message to the entire community that LGBTQ identities are inherently obscene, worthy of stigmatization, and uniquely deprive LGBTQ students of the opportunity to read books that reflect their own experiences.”
While parents struggle with their children growing up and expanding their minds, it cannot be forgotten that these are things they are more than likely seeing on the internet or on social media and tackling hard themes in the safe space of a classroom can take the fear, embarrassment, and/or confusion students have around the topics.
Can we find a middle ground?
Parents are concerned about what their children are reading. Zwicker himself strongly supports a parents right to know what their children read, but does not believe that it’s fair to control access to content for all parents and children, so perhaps there is something that can be done to satisfy both parties.
In many schools, children are sent home with waivers before reading books with explicit content and some schools give parents the option to request an alternate assignment for students.
Perhaps this can be something that is allowed in all schools of the state. Allowing children and parents to opt out of material that they deem inappropriate or do not want to participate in.
Certain themes can be triggering for students so teachers can also give trigger warnings to students before discussing material with certain themes to ensure all students in the classroom are comfortable. A disclaimer can also be implemented in the classroom, which many teachers already do, stating that if anyone at any point feels uncomfortable with the material or discussion they can leave the classroom.
A display of banned or censored books at Books Inc., an independent bookstore in Alameda, California, October 16, 2021. Photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images
We cannot restrict access to information
Again, while it is important to consider the feelings of parents and students and allow them an “out” when it comes to certain material being read in the classroom, it is unconstitutional to ban these books and remove them from schools altogether.
Librarian Martha Hickson states that “students have a right to access a diverse range of stories and perspectives” and believes that it can be harmful to students who feel they are reflected in those books to see them being banned.
Bill S3907 has only just been introduced but has already gotten a lot of media attention. The bill is a crucial step towards upholding intellectual freedom by preventing book bans in public libraries and schools. When the legislative session resumes in September, we will be able to track the progress of this bill and see how the passing or dismissal of the bill affects the New Jersey education system.
I remember in highschool reading books that are on this list like “Lord of the Flies,” and “Catcher in the Rye,” and “Fahrenheit 451.” I’ve also read books by authors on this list like “Song of Solomon,” by Nobel Prize winning author Toni Morrison. These are just a small number of books that are at risk of being lost to the ban. While these books had some challenging themes, they pushed me academically and challenged me to learn more about a world I’m unfamiliar with and expanded my thinking beyond the classroom. I don’t think books should be banned, knowledge should not be limited and I hope that bills like S3907 encourage the state to stop the ban and empower intellectual freedom.
About the Author: Gabriella Manresa is the Service Specialist Intern of the Lesniak Institute for American Leadership. Gabriella is a student at Kean University obtaining both a Bachelors and Masters of Public Administration through the university’s BA/MPA Honors Program.
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