Piper Hutchinson, Louisiana Illuminator
Editor’s note: The following article includes explicit language
Republicans on the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee argued thousands of book bans across the country were not bans at all during a hearing Tuesday.
Most of the Republicans on the committee took the stance that taxpayer-funded libraries removing books from circulation does not constitute a ban because people can still purchase them. Going further, ranking GOP member Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina defended public institutions’ right to ban books.
“In Burbank, California, some school district banned ‘Huckleberry Finn,’ ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’” Graham said. “I don’t agree with that, but that was your right to make that decision.”
First Amendment experts have said decisions of local school and library boards to remove books from the shelves because of objections to their content are book bans by definition. The idea that such decisions do not truly constitute bans because individuals can still access the materials at bookstores has come up in library board meetings across the nation, as the boards grapple with an unprecedented wave of challenged titles.
The American Library Association counted 1,200 challenges against more than 2,500 books in 2022, the most since the organization began tracking challenges two decades ago.
Nearly 200 of those challenges were filed in St. Tammany Parish, a conservative stronghold in Louisiana. Most came from a small number of far-right activists who primarily targeted books with LGBTQ+ themes.
Two of the books targeted in St. Tammany, “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe and “All Boys Aren’t Blue” by George M. Johnson, have topped most-challenged book lists for the nation and the state and were brought up at the hearing by Louisiana Sen. John Kennedy, who read excerpts from the books.
“‘I can’t wait to have your cock in my mouth. I’m going to give you the blow job of your life. Then I want you inside of me,’” Kennedy read from Gender Queer to the committee. “Are you suggesting that only librarians should decide whether the two books that I just referenced should be available to kids?”
Neither book is shelved in the children’s section. “Gender Queer,” a semi-autobiographical graphic novel, is shelved in the adults’ section, while ‘All Boys Aren’t Blue,’ a series of essays, is classified as young adult nonfiction. Different libraries handle young adult books differently, with some shelving books with the adults section and others shelving them in a separate young adults section.
The argument activists, and now U.S. senators, have made when discussing these books is not that they should be removed from the reach of children, but that they should be removed from libraries entirely or placed in restricted sections that minors would be physically blocked from entering.
They maintain the challenged books are sexually explicit and that parents have a right to prevent their children from reading such material. Opponents of book bans generally agree parents have that right but insist it’s up to parents to monitor what their kids are reading, not librarians.
Committee Chair Dick Durbin, a progressive Democrat from Illinois, made that argument at the hearing.
“I understand and respect that parents may choose to limit what their children read, especially at younger ages. My wife and I did, and others do, too,” Durbin said. “But no parent should have the right to tell another parent’s child what they can and cannot read in school or at home.”
Republicans on the committee had the same rebuttal to that argument that conservative activists speaking at library boards across the country have made: Those who oppose restricting minors’ access to the material in question have an ulterior motive.
Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, an ultra-conservative member of the committee, played a clip of Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, speaking on the framing of the debate around book challenges.
In the video, Caldwell-Stone advocates for messaging that “reframes this issue that takes it away from the idea that these [challenged books] are inappropriate for minors or sexually inappropriate for minors, and promote them as diverse materials and programming that are about inclusion, fairness and protection of everybody’s right to see themselves and their families reflected in the books in the public library.”
In Lee’s view, Caldwell-Stone’s argument is evidence of “grooming” — in this context, an anti-LGBTQ+ dog whistle. Conservatives have been criticized for misappropriating the term “grooming,” which typically refers to behaviors sexual predators use to coerce potential victims, to characterize benign actions by LGBTQ+ people as harmful to children.
The American Library Association, librarians and anti-censorship advocates have been on the receiving end of this misapplied label.
The term has also come up dozens of times in library board meetings in Louisiana and has been used in the same context by numerous public officials, including Attorney General Jeff Landry, the current frontrunner for Louisiana’s fall gubernatorial election, who last year set up a tip line seeking complaints about libraries to protect children from “early sexualization, as well as grooming, sex trafficking and abuse.”
The commonalities in the rhetoric used for years by activists targeting books in distinct parts of the country — and now adopted uniformly by Republican senators — indicates that the issue does not stem from independent grassroots movements, book ban opponents say.
“Today’s hearing showcased that the book banning movement is a coordinated effort by a very small percentage of extremists and politicians using libraries and librarians to score political points,” Amanda Jones, a school librarian and co-founder of Louisiana Citizens Against Censorship, said in a statement.
The leader of a dark money group with close ties to the conservative Koch Brothers testified before the committee. Nicole Neily, president of Parents Defending Education, has taken interest in controversial educational issues across the nation. Her group has filed a host of civil rights complaints against school districts for curriculum and discussions that touch on race, gender and sexual identity.
She testified that challenging books is a matter of parental rights.
“If you hear one thing today, know this: Families’ concerns about books and schools are not banning,” Neily said. “As a society we don’t have ‘Playboy’ in kindergartens. This isn’t considered a book ban but common sense.”
Neily also drew a connection between the library issue and other “parental rights,” including policies regarding transgender and nonbinary students’ use of names and pronouns in K-12 schools. Conservatives in at least 10 states have passed bills restricting the use of names and pronouns that differ from those on students’ birth certificates. In some states, the legislation requires teachers to notify parents their students are doing so, meaning students could be forcibly outed to their parents, which could impact their physical or mental health.
Library advocates and Democratic senators present pushed back on the far-right rhetoric.
Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey said libraries helped him when his was the only Black family in his small town.
“This to me is about something deeper that’s going on in American culture right now,” Booker said. “We have a country right now that is based on ideals of a commitment to one another. We weren’t founded on sameness, same religion, same ethnicity.”
“In many ways, our schools become areas, especially the ideals of public schools, where diverse people come together for an education,” Booker added.
Cameron Samuels, a nonbinary student activist in Texas, spoke on the impact of their school district in Katy, Texas, banning books about the LGBTQ+ community and people of color.
“Censorship bars students from age relevant materials, leaving them unable to realize their actions can traumatize others,” Samuels said. “We are facing a student civil rights crisis nationwide.”
Louisiana Illuminator is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Louisiana Illuminator maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Greg LaRose for questions: email@example.com. Follow Louisiana Illuminator on Facebook and Twitter.