New waves of book bans have surged into libraries across the United States in recent months, raising concerns among free speech advocates. They are not alone. Stakeholders in the book industry are fighting back in an effort that unites publishers and book sellers with authors, students, teachers, librarians and parents to reclaim the Constitutional right to freedom of expression.
Libraries are under attack…
The American Library Association is among those tracking the rise in book ban activity impacting libraries across the nation. Last month, the ALA released preliminary data for 2023 — which tracks bans and censorship affecting public libraries, grade school libraries, and other academic libraries from January 1 through August 31.
In all, it counted a total of 695 attempts to censor library materials and services, covering 1,915 unique titles, a sharp jump up from the same period last year.
“The number of unique titles challenged has increased by 20 percent from the same reporting period in 2022," the ALA reported. "Most of the challenges were to books written by or about a person of color or a member of the LGBTQIA+ community."
The organization PEN America noted a similar spike in book bans. During the 2022-2023 school year, PEN tracked 3,362 book banning incidents in grade school libraries, an increase of 33 percent from the previous school year.
As with the ALA and other organizations, PEN found that the vast majority of the challenges “target books on race or racism or featuring characters of color, as well as books with LGBTQ+ characters,” and that much of the new activity can be traced to a limited number of partisan right-wing organizations and Republican lawmakers.
…and now the whole book industry is at risk
As PEN and ALA noted, most library book bans focus on LGBTQ+ and minority authors. However, PEN also observed a more concerning trend during the 2022-23 school year: The focus expanded to include books that address the difficulties and challenges of growing up.
“This year, banned books also include books on physical abuse, health and well-being, and themes of grief and death,” PEN explained. “Notably, most instances of book bans affect young adult books, middle grade books, chapter books, or picture books — books specifically written and selected for younger audiences.”
That expanded focus should be raising alarm bells throughout the publishing industry, even though the impact of book bans on overall sales has yet to emerge. Publishers Weekly recently reported that the book industry is still running ahead of pre-pandemic sales, despite a slump in recent months. “In taking the longer view back to prepandemic times, units were up 12 percent in the first half of this year compared to 2019,” they observed.
Despite the apparent strength of the industry today, signs of a more direct and damaging assault on book sellers emerged in Texas this year with the passage of House Bill 900, signed into law by Texas Gov. Greg Abbot this summer. The new law requires book sellers to enforce state censorship laws, without compensation.
“HB 900 … requires school library vendors to rate all their books and materials for appropriateness before selling them to schools based on the presence of sex depictions or references,” the Texas Tribune reported. “It also requires vendors to rank materials previously sold to schools and issue a recall for those that are deemed sexually explicit and are in active use by a school.”
Book sellers face an uphill fight in Texas…
In July, two independent Texas book retailers, BookPeople of Austin and Blue Willow of Houston, filed a lawsuit over HB 900, joined by the American Booksellers Association, the Association of American Publishers, the Authors Guild and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.
In their official filing, the groups argued that the new law “violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution because it is an overbroad and vague content-based law that targets protected speech and is not narrowly tailored to serve a compelling state interest.”
“The Book Ban compels Plaintiffs to express the government’s views, even if they do not agree, and operates as a prior restraint, two of the most egregious constitutional infringements,” they added.
Federal judge Alan D. Allbright agreed. He granted a permanent injunction against the law last month, issuing a “blistering opinion” that excoriated lawmakers for outsourcing a deeply flawed ratings system to private vendors. Texas appealed the decision, and the injunction was lifted pending a hearing the in 5th Circuit later this year, leaving Texas book sellers vulnerable to prosecution.
… But they win a victory in Illinois.
The fight against HB 900 is one compelling indication that book sellers cannot depend on the courts to win the anti-censorship fight. The real power rests with state legislatures that can either support book bans or prevent them. In June, for example, Illinois claimed the title of the first state in the nation to pass a law that prohibits libraries from banning books.
Other signs of a backlash against the book bans have emerged elsewhere around the country, as highlighted by media attention around the annual Banned Book Week event. Hosted by the ALA since 1982, this year’s event took place in the first week of October.
ABC News was among those coordinating with the event. “Student-led banned book clubs and anti-censorship groups have been popping up in states where a conservative-led movement to remove certain books or lessons has led to boisterous board meetings, protests, and more," ABC reporter Kiara Alfonseca observed on October 2.
Teen Vogue reporter Marilyn La Jeunesse took note of the same youth-led backlash against book bans. In an article posted on October 2, she led off with the phrase, “Ban bigotry not books.”
“This is the rallying cry of Gen Z students and teachers who are standing up against book bans and curriculum censorship laws across the United States,” she continued.
New leaders are emerging in the fight against book bans
Libraries and individual book sellers crafted special displays to coordinate with Banned Book Week, helping to draw local attention to the issue. On a broader level, a growing base of guidance can help book sellers and other stakeholders raise the profile of anti-censorship efforts.
The organization Every Library, for example, lists action steps for book stores and student groups with an emphasis on using social media, traditional media, postcards and other means of communication to help raise public awareness. Another organization, Unite Against Book Bans, assembled a toolkit that includes specific talking points and constructive guidance for engaging in person with individuals who seek to ban books.
Penguin Random House is among the publishers to draw attention to the issue, with an online news and resource repository focusing on collaborative efforts. In a recent article for Penguin Random House, Florida book seller Michael Kaplan describes how the book industry has united to fight censorship in his home state, in alliance with local groups like Moms 4 Libros and Families Against Banned Books and other organizations.
“Leaders are emerging,” Kaplan concluded. “Our community is galvanized and I’m as confident as ever that, just as has happened in the past, the right to read will reassert itself and we will never ever allow anyone to be left in the darkness brought on by the menace of censorship.”
Image credit: Kabiur Rahman Riyad/Unsplash
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.