Texas leads the US in books banned from schools, says free speech group

Texas has banned 801 books, covering 22 districts, in the past year – more than any other state, according to analysis produced by PEN Americaa century-old organization focused on the protection of literary expression and human rights.

Among the main conclusions of the group:

  • From July 2021 to June 2022, PEN America’s Index of school book bans lists 2,532 cases of individual books being banned, affecting 1,648 unique book titles by 1,261 different authors.
  • Bans took place in 138 school districts in 32 states. The districts represent nearly 4 million students.
  • Of the 1,648 book titles, 674 (41%) explicitly address LGBTQ+ themes or have prominent protagonists or supporting characters who are LGBTQ+ and 659 titles (40%) contain prominent protagonists or supporting characters of color.
  • Texas has 801 titles banned in 22 districts. PEN America defines a textbook ban as “any action taken against a book based on its content and as a result of parental or community challenges, administrative decisions, or in response to direct or threatened action by lawmakers or other government officials, which leads to a previously accessible book being either completely removed from student availability or when access to a book is restricted or diminished.”

PEN America Database as of Monday shows the Leander School District, which straddles Williamson and Travis counties, has a total of 11 prohibited titlessome of which include: “Brave Face: A Memoir” by Shaun David Hutchinson, a book about 19-year-old Hutchinson, who grew up gay and suffered from depression; and “In the Dream House”, a memoir by Carmen Maria Machado which follows his years in an abusive same-sex marriage.

Last year, the district has undertaken a community review process this led to all 11 books being removed from book club and classroom lists. Some of the originally suspended books have been reinstated. The review committees were made up of district staff, community members, and students.

The only other Austin-area school district in the database, the Lake Travis district in western Travis County, has a banned book: “Out of Darkness” by Ashley Hope Perez. The district said it has received complaints about explicit depictions of sex in the historical novel, which follows an interracial teenage romance in 1930s East Texas.

PEN’s report shows trends in banned books with LGBTQ+ themes, main characters who are people of color, sexual content and issues of racism.

“There are a lot of different groups, I think, that are being targeted beyond race,” said PEN America director William Johnson. “If you block access to opinions and knowledge, you block access to education. This is why organizations like PEN are important, especially at this time when you see all sorts of censors and threats springing up all over the country.

The organization collaborates with the Austin Public Library Foundation hold a free community reading from 6-8 p.m. Wednesday at the Spider House Ballroom, 2908 Fruth St. in Central Austin, to recognize literary rights during Banned Books Week 2022. The event will feature local leaders reading at aloud prohibited material.

After:In Leander, efforts to provide more inclusive school reading lists are facing headwinds

Tim Staley, executive director of the foundation and president of the Austin chapter of PEN, said the best way for people to have enhanced reading experiences is to be able to read what they want.

“The goal is to raise awareness about the problem of book censorship, that is, there are people telling students and others what they should and shouldn’t read,” Staley said. Book censorship “is happening, and people should be aware of it, because if people are aware, we may be more likely to resist these censorship efforts.”

The students began to fight the bans in their own way. American statesman recently reported about a group of Vandegrift High School students who started a banned book club last year amid the growing reality of censorship in district libraries.

“Literary culture cannot thrive if people cannot read freely, express their opinions or share ideas,” said Johnson of PEN America. “On the one hand, we celebrate literature, but we also try to create an environment where literature can flourish. If it cannot thrive, freedom of expression does not exist.

After:ACLU’s online hub serves young activists fighting book censorship in Texas schools

Outside of school libraries and classrooms, book bans have also started to become prominent in public libraries, according to Staley.

This is “particularly alarming”, he said. “There has always been a school board here or there that has identified certain titles that they think a child should not have access to, but it proliferates far beyond an isolated incident here and there. It becomes what appears to be a broader effort to restrict people’s freedom to read.

According to the PEN report, pressure from politicians and other organisations, such as County Citizens Defending Freedomare felt by districts in Texas and directly affect the books that come off the shelves.

State Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, and Gov. Greg Abbott asked districts earlier this year to review books that may contain pornographic content, and Krause sent a list of 850 books to the districts in a letter. According to the report, Abbott gave no specific examples of what could be considered “pornographic.”

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The Texas Education Agency modeled a new policy that several districts are now following, although the policy changes mentioned in the model are not required for all districts. According to the report, TEA policy requires librarians to hold biannual reviews allowing parents to voice objections and concerns, and to define harmful material based on the Texas Penal Code.

In other cases, Houston-area school districts such as Katy, Cypress-Fairbanks and Clear Creek took action to ban the books based on what neighboring districts were doing, the report said.

PEN encourages authors whose titles are banned to contact the organization or get involved in a plan to resolve the issues. For Johnson, the primary goal of PEN is to provide information to communities to better understand these efforts.

“We have many reports of these threats occurring so the community is aware,” Johnson said. “By providing this information, they can make decisions about how they want to move forward. But first, people need to know that these threats exist in their communities.

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Colin L. Johnson