How best to stop books being banned? Ban such bans.

The Minnesota anti-book-ban bill does not overlook parents’ rights.
The Minnesota anti-book-ban bill does not overlook parents’ rights.

Summary

  • Censorship of books goes against the promise of democracy. The American state of Minnesota has done well to ban book-bans.

While far-right groups—in mostly Republican-led states—wage a crusade to ban thousands of books in schools and public libraries across the country, Minnesota is pushing back. This state, governed by a former high-school teacher, has banned book bans. 

The rise in attempts to censor Americans’ reading material is alarming. In 2023, book challenges surged to the highest level ever documented, according to the American Library Association, with efforts to censure more than 4,200 titles.

Also read: There Were 1,269 Efforts to Ban Books in 2022. These Were the Most Targeted.

The tactics are alarming too. Where previous attempts typically involved a parent or small group of parents challenging a single book title, now groups with clear political agendas are filing coordinated challenges against scores of books, all under the guise of parental rights.

The books targeted typically deal with issues of race, sexuality or gender expression. School and library board members have been shouted down at meetings, librarians have been harassed and threatened with violence, and groups have used the possibility of lawsuits and criminal charges as intimidation tactics.

Last year, while Florida was yanking books off its shelves—300 titles were removed in nearly a third of the state’s school districts—Minnesota Democratic Governor Tim Walz moved to highlight the absurdity of the Sunshine State’s ban. He installed his own ‘Little Free Library’ at the Minnesota Capitol building, like the small pop-up libraries that dot the front of many homes nationwide. The difference: This one featured banned books.

It was a small gesture that sparked a larger idea: to stand against censorship with the full force of state law.

Also read: Free libraries are a big hope in need of policy support

“I knew we had to do more," Walz said just before signing the ban into law Friday. “I see book bans as dangerous. Throughout history, the people who want to ban books have never been on the right side." As a teacher, he said, “The freedom to read is super personal to me. We know how powerful it is for kids."

The law states in simple, unambiguous language, “a public library must not ban, remove or otherwise restrict access to a book or other material based solely on its viewpoint or the messages, ideas or opinions it conveys." It puts decisions on book selection firmly in the hands of experts: librarians—who have made books their life’s work.

That’s not such a novel idea. Librarians have been entrusted with such decisions since libraries began. It was only after extremist groups such as Moms for Liberty decided they could exploit this issue for political gain a few years ago that book challenges surged.

The Minnesota anti-book-ban bill does not overlook parents’ rights. Every library must have policies that allow parents or guardians to exercise their own judgment regarding their children.

Parents should be able to determine what their children are exposed to and raise them in accordance with their values. But when they seek instead to control access to books for all children, they cross a fundamental line, violating the rights of those students and their parents and the intellectual freedom that must be cultivated and exercised at a young age.

Also read: National Reading Day: History and significance

Their desire to impose their moral code, or religious beliefs on others does not—or at least should not—override an individual’s freedom. Does it matter that we’re talking about students here? Not according to Supreme Court Justice William Brennan, who in 1982 issued an opinion for a divided court in Board of Education vs Pico that stated, “Local school boards may not remove books from school library shelves simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books."

Democratic Minnesota State Senator Steve Cwodzinski, who taught American government to high schoolers for more than 30 years, believes passionately in the power of books to open students’ minds to new ways of thinking. “I believe in the marketplace of ideas," said Cwodzinski, who sponsored the bill and struggled for its passage against Republican opponents who said it was unnecessary. Democrats hold a one-seat majority in the chamber.

“I would tell parents, try to trust the professionals," Cwodzinski said. “I’ve seen the spark go off in students when they find a book that speaks to them. And having a librarian guide them is a lot better than them just finding out on the internet alone."

Book bans are the most widespread form of censorship in the US and are antithetical to a democracy that depends on a thoughtful, informed citizenry. Controlling access to books and limiting materials considered controversial only by some are the first steps toward controlling thought. We should reject it soundly. ©bloomberg

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