Book bans are rising at a rapid pace in school districts around the United States, driven by new laws and regulations that limit what kinds of books children can access, according to a new report from PEN America, a free speech organization.
From July to December 2022, PEN found 1,477 cases of books being removed, up from 1,149 during the previous six months. Since the organization began tracking bans in July 2021, it has counted more than 4,000 instances of book removals using news reports, public records requests and publicly available data.
The numbers don’t reflect the full scope of the efforts, since new mandates in some states requiring schools to vet all their reading material for potentially offensive content have led to mass removals of books, which PEN was unable to track, the report says.
The statistic also fails to capture the rapid evolution of book restrictions into what many free speech organizations consider a worrisome new phase: Book bans are increasingly driven by organized efforts led by elected officials or activists groups whose actions can affect a whole district or state.
Of the nearly 1,500 book removals that PEN tracked in the last six months of 2022, the majority — nearly 75 percent — were driven by organized efforts or because of new legislation.
More on U.S. Schools and Education
Seven states, including Florida, Tennessee, Oklahoma and Utah, passed laws last year that impose limits on material in libraries, according to analysis done by EveryLibrary, a political action committee for libraries. This year, the group is tracking 113 bills across the country that it says would negatively impact libraries or curtail people’s freedom to read.
“This is much bigger than you can really count,” said Jonathan Friedman, the director of free expression and education at PEN America. “People need to understand that it’s not a single book being removed in a single school district, it’s a set of ideas that are under threat just about everywhere.”
PEN’s analysis follows similar findings by the American Library Association, which recently released a report showing that efforts to ban books nearly doubled in 2022 over the previous year, and reached the highest number of complaints since the association began studying censorship efforts more than 20 years ago. The association found that book challenges are now increasingly being filed against multiple titles at once. In the past, libraries and schools typically received complaints about a single work.
“We’ve had two record-breaking years, and those of us who are fighting book bans really have our work cut out for us,” said Christopher Finan, the executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship. “At this point, we’re fighting an uphill battle.”
Free speech advocates are troubled by not just the sharp rise in book bans, but also the new ways in which books are being targeted. Until fairly recently, most book removals occurred when a parent raised concerns about a title with a teacher or librarian. Complaints were typically resolved quietly, after a school board or committee evaluated the material and determined whether it was appropriate for students.
That began to change during the pandemic, with the rise of groups like Moms for Liberty and Utah Parents United, which formed to oppose Covid-19 restrictions, began to focus on the content of school curriculums and libraries. Members of these groups started showing up at school board meetings to demand that certain books be removed and circulating online lists of titles they found objectionable.
The rise of these networks meant that specific books — often titles that center on L.G.B.T.Q. themes or that address racial inequality — were being targeted all over the country. The debate around what constitutes appropriate reading material for students also became increasingly politicized and vitriolic. Librarians and teachers have been accused of promoting pedophilia, and some have lost their jobs or quit under pressure after refusing to remove books.
PEN and other free speech groups say that the new laws have had a chilling effect.
In Florida, where the State Legislature passed a law requiring that a certified media specialist evaluate all the books on school classroom and library shelves, some districts advised schools to limit access to all the titles until they could vetted, resulting in empty library shelves in some schools. Similarly, after Tennessee passed the “Age Appropriate Materials Act,” which required schools to catalog all the books in their classrooms and libraries to ensure there was no inappropriate content, some teachers chose to remove or cover up their entire classroom libraries rather than risk violating the law.
This week, Tennessee lawmakers went further and passed a bill that would subject book publishers and distributors to criminal prosecution and hefty fines for providing public schools with material that is deemed to be obscene. In a statement, PEN called on Gov. Bill Lee to reject the bill, arguing that it serves no purpose other than to intimidate publishers into self-censorship.
PEN’s analysis tracked bans in 21 states, affecting 66 school districts, but found that book removals were concentrated in a handful of states. Texas had the highest number, with 438 removals, followed by Florida, with 357, then Missouri, where 315 books were banned, and Utah and South Carolina, which each saw more than 100 titles removed.
Many of the same titles are being targeted around the country. Among the most banned books last year were “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe, “Flamer” by Mike Curato, “Tricks” by Ellen Hopkins, a graphic novel edition of “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood and “Milk and Honey,” a poetry collection by Rupi Kaur.
“I do fear we’re losing sight of just how unusual this is,” Friedman said. “Book bans are becoming normalized in many places.”