Media Guide: Reporting on Book Bannings and School Censorship

Note: This guide was first published on December 8, 2021 and was last updated on August 8, 2022.

The rise in efforts to ban specific topics from school libraries—largely books about LGBTQ people and race and racism—is inextricable from long-standing efforts by extremist groups to increasingly use schools as a political battleground, including more than 225 anti-LGBTQ bills proposed in state legislatures in 2022.

The removal of books from school libraries based on personal opposition to their content is illegal. In 1982, after the Moral Majority-inspired wave of book bannings, the Supreme Court ruled that a Long Island school district violated students’ constitutional rights under the First Amendment when it banned a selection of books. Notably, that case was brought by students; students are also resisting censorship in their schools today. What sets 2022 apart from past incidents of book banning is the sheer number of attempts to specifically target books about LGBTQ people and people of color.

  • In 2021, the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom tracked over 476 book censorship challenges between September and the end of 2021. The ALA created a Fight Censorship guide, a “clearinghouse of resources to assist library workers and library advocates” to help respond to censorship incidents and challenges, and launched the Unite Against Book Bans campaign in May 2022.
  • So far in 2022, the National Coalition Against Censorship’s Youth Censorship Database shows at least 82 incidents of challenges to books, most of which are based on LGBTQ content. The same map showed at least 75 similar incidents in 2021. NCAC launched a Book Challenge Crisis Hotline in late January.
  • The Book Ban Busters map shows dozens of bans and other challenges to books around the country, gathered by a group of parents associated with the Red, Wine, and Blue campaign.
  • As of August 8, there have been 91 anti-LGBTQ school policy bills proposed in numerous states. Some of those propose banning LGBTQ books from school districts, while others ban discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity in class, such as Florida’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill. (Source: Freedom For All Americans.)
  • Governors in South Carolina and Texas have demanded investigations into LGBTQ books in schools, and elected officials have proposed removing specific titles from school libraries. For example, Texas Rep. Matt Krause sent a list of over 850 titles to the state Department of Education; an analysis showed over 60% of the books on his list were about LGBTQ people or issues.
  • Librarians have been harassed and threatened, and some libraries have been threatened by defunding either by elected officials or after being targeted by extremist campaigns. In January, the mayor of Ridgeland, Mississippi withheld funding from the Madison County Library System, telling the library director he personally opposed LGBTQ titles and wanted them removed before funding would be reinstated. The funding was resolved in April, but in early August the Patmos Library in Jamestown Township, Michigan was stripped of funding after an extremist voter campaign opposing LGBTQ books decimated 90% of its operating budget. In June, the American Library Association issued a statement condemning threats against library workers and patrons, saying that "violence, threats of violence and other acts of intimidation" were largely targeting books by or about "gay, queer, transgender, Black, Indigenous, persons of color, those with disabilities and religious minorities."
  • Censorship efforts are not limited to books on paper; in several states school officials have cut off access to digital reading resources like Epic and Overdrive because of the availability of LGBTQ titles in their e-libraries.

The citations below are designed to provide context and sourcing recommendations for journalists covering the uptick in book bans and school censorship. In this guide, you will find advocates and professional associations speaking out against book bans, parent and student groups resisting censorship, background on anti-LGBTQ groups connected to the current censorship efforts, details on 2022 legislation, and more.


RECOMMENDATIONS FOR MEDIA COVERING BOOK BANS

TIP: Center and elevate LGBTQ and other marginalized community voices in your coverage. Include the voices of LGBTQ students, authors, parents, teachers, and advocates in any coverage of LGBTQ issues.

  •  In December, GLAAD joined the National Coalition Against Censorship and over 600 other national organizations, authors, booksellers, publishers and others in a coalition statement opposing book bans. GLAAD also launched the #BooksNotBans social media campaign.

TIP: Center and elevate student voices. Students are the ones whose right to read about certain topics is being challenged. Coverage of a proposed or enacted book ban in a school district should include the voices of students in that district.

  • Kansas City students launched a petition to replace censored books after school district abruptly pulled two LGBTQ titles from libraries. The petition stated: “all of the books [opponents] have targeted have a clear bias toward people of color, women, or LGBTQIA+ people.”
  • Students successfully overturned a ban on dozens of books and educational materials about diversity in York County, PA.
  • Students rallied in North Hunterdon, NJ to protest book bans after a group of conservative parents demanded five LGBTQ books be removed from the district.
  • Spotsylvania, VA students petitioned and protested against books with LGBTQ and other themes being deemed “sexually explicit” and removed from school district.

TIP: Avoid the false framing of book bans as a “parents’ rights” issue or a “culture war” between left and right. Many parents want a more fair and inclusive education for their children, and value free expression and access to books. Parents are also Black, LGBTQ, and parents of LGBTQ children, for example, and these parents have the same rights as any other group.

  • The Texas-based Round Rock Black Parents Association spoke out against school book bans after successfully petitioning the school district not to remove children’s books about anti-racism.
  • A group of suburban moms linked to the organization Red Wine and Blue launched Book Ban Busters in opposition to school censorship.
  • Parents, teachers, and other community members in Maryland rallied to oppose book bans and school censorship after conservative group filed a police report against the school board.
  • Parents and teachers in Kansas City, Missouri resisted school censorship efforts and launched a fundraiser to place banned books in Little Free Library boxes.

TIP: Include context about the activists and elected officials proposing bans, including history of anti-LGBTQ activism and connections to national groups.

  • MOMS FOR LIBERTY: The Florida-based Moms For Liberty is a heavily-funded organization with strong ties to national groups such as the Heritage Foundation and to political groups such as the Florida Republican Party. Founded in January 2021 but growing to over 135 chapters in 35 states by October, Moms For Liberty chapters commonly instruct activists on how to oppose race, sex, and gender education in schools. Oregon Moms For Liberty’s page describes "critical race theory" and state-mandated LGBTQ inclusion in sex education and lists contact information for elected officials, for example, while the group’s Tennessee chapter has lobbied to ban books about Martin Luther King Jr., Ruby Bridges, and the civil rights movement from schools.
  • THE HERITAGE FOUNDATION: The Heritage Foundation drafted model legislation for states to ban “critical race theory,” targeting teachings about race. Heritage drafted an e-book about fighting CRT in schools and a legislative tracker. Heritage also links sex education to CRT and has lobbied against transgender rights in schools and elsewhere. Its PAC, Heritage Action for America, runs the campaign Save Our Schools, a campaign opposing the Equality Act, and campaigns that oppose healthcare coverage for transgender medical care.
  • MASSRESISTANCE: A Southern Poverty Law Center designated anti-LGBTQ hate group, MassResistance compares LGBTQ inclusion to facism and fights against sex education, LGBTQ inclusion in schools, Drag Queen Story Hour, transgender healthcare, and lately, LGBTQ books in libraries. The group recently took credit for shutting down a clinic for transgender youth in Texas, and has paid for billboards that call for an end to “child indoctrination at our library” in Wyoming among other campaign efforts.  (Source: MassResistance website). The group was originally founded in 1995 under the name Parents’ Rights Coalition.
  • NO LEFT TURN IN EDUCATION: No Left Turn and its founder, Elana Yaron Fishbein, frequently post on social media, including  falsely comparing author Ibram X. Kendi to Adolf Hitler , with the suggestion that “if your school district buys this guy’s books and invites him to speak, you better be raising hell.” In other posts, LGBTQ inclusion in schools is compared to “the dismantling of the family unit” and to pedophilia. Fishbein works with the Heritage Foundation and is a signatory on the anti-transgender Promise To America’s Children campaign that provided model legislation for anti-trans sports and healthcare bans in early 2021. (Source: Media Matters For America)
  • FAMILIES FOR EDUCATIONAL FREEDOM: A project of the powerful, well-funded anti-LGBTQ group International Organization for the Family (also known as World Conference of Families, a designated hate group according to the Southern Poverty Law Center), Families for Educational Freedom encourages parents to submit “opt-out” letters to schools to recuse children from teachings about race, surveys that ask questions about gender identity and sexual orientation, and more. According to a 2015 HRC report, the parent group World Congress of Families was instrumental in Russia’s crackdown on LGBTQ citizens, including the passage of a 2013 law banning “LGBTQ propaganda.”
  • PARENTS DEFENDING FREEDOM: Founded by Koch brothers affiliate Nicole Neily (formerly of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, Cato Institute, SpeechFirst, and more) and co-run by former Wall Street Journal investigative reporter Asra Nomani, Parents Defending Education uses “network and coalition building, investigative reporting, litigation, and engagement on local, state, and national policies” to fight what it calls liberal indoctrination in schools—code for curricula that includes teachings about race, gender, sexual orientation, and other marginalized identity groups. The group’s IndoctriNation Map tracks schools that include racial justice and LGBTQ issues in policies, curricula, and events.

TIP: Include professional and expert voices—librarians, educators, publishers and booksellers, racial and social justice advocates—to explain procedures for challenged books and legal precedent to protect student access to books.

  • The National Coalition Against Censorship statement, signed by GLAAD and 600 other groups and individuals December 2021: “Nearly all communities have developed policies for both handling book challenges and allowing parents to influence their own child’s reading, but they must do so within the guideposts set forth by the Supreme Court, without infringing on the rights of other students. The law clearly prohibits the kind of activities we are seeing today: censoring school libraries, removing books–and entire reading lists–based on disagreement with viewpoint and without any review of their educational or literary merit."
  • The American Library Association released a statement opposing the national wave of book bans and reaffirming, for the first time since it was originally published, its 1953 Freedom To Read declaration—published under “comparable threats to our democratic values” during the height of McCarthyism.
  • The National Education Association recommended several LGBTQ-themed children’s books as part of its Read Across America diverse literacy program and its resources for educators and librarians.
  • The Michigan Civil Rights Commission passed a resolution against censorship and book bans in response to state legislation and school censorship.
  • Texas librarians launched #FReadom social media takeover in opposition to Krause list and subsequent book bans.
  • Over 175 Texas authors signed a statement to oppose Rep. Krause list and subsequent censorship of books in Texas school districts.
  • The Tennessee Association of School Librarians (TASL), Tennessee Library Association (TLA), and Friends of the Tennessee Libraries (FoTL) released a joint statement opposing school board attempts to ban books that are largely by Black authors.
  • Some libraries and bookstores are offering free copies of targeted books. Several bookstores create banned book sections to highlight embattled titles. The online resource Scribd announced in February that it would offer free access to several books being banned. Missouri Black-owned bookstore EyeSeeMe and nonprofit In Purpose Educational Services partner to fund and deliver banned books to households for free.
  • State library associations have launched "right to read" anti-censorship campaigns. In March, Texans For The Right To Read launched in order to oppose censorship efforts and proposed legislation targeting books and libraries, and to support targeted LGBTQ and POC authors. Librarians in other states, such as Michigan, were inspired to launch local Right To Read campaigns, warehousing resources, helping local libraries file censorship complaints, and encouraging residents to lobby their officials to oppose censorship.
  • PEN America's Banned In The USA report examines book bans and challenges between July 2021 and March 2022, finding that 98% of the efforts to censor books failed to follow guidelines established by the American Library Association. The report also found that during the time studied, over one-third of the books targeted were about LGBTQ topics or by LGBTQ authors.

TIP: Use critical thinking and context when encountering claims of obscenity against a specific book, and ask whether those same claims are applied to books that refer to heterosexual relationships or sexuality.

  • Texas state representative Matt Krause sent a list of over 850 books to the Texas Education Agency, demanding to know whether any of them were available in school districts. Over 60% of the books on the list were about LGBTQ people and issues; the rest largely addressed race and racism, human rights, and sex education. In his letter to the agency, Krause also demanded a list of every piece of educational material or book mentioning HIV and AIDS.
  • In some states, elected officials and organizations have published lengthy hit lists of books to oppose, most with LGBTQ content and characters. In Utah, a list of over 100 “SEXUALLY EXPLICIT, OBSCENE, OR OBJECTIONABLE BOOKS IN MURRAY CITY SCHOOL DISTRICT” has been circulating since the fall. Most of the books on the list refer to LGBTQ or Black subjects, while some books on the list contain references to sex.
     

2022 LEGISLATION ALERT

As of August 9, there have been at least 225 anti-LGBTQ state bills proposed across the country during the 2022 session;  91 of those are anti-LGBTQ school policy bills. State and federal legislation targeting LGBTQ education in schools typically takes one of three forms: bans on books and materials, ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bills targeting LGBTQ conversation in schooland bans on ‘Critical Race Theory’ that also prevent teachers from discussing discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity. A full overview of anti-LGBTQ 2022 legislation is available on the Freedom For All Americans legislative tracker, and below is a small sample of selected bills:

  • Oklahoma: The state’s SB 1142, sponsored by Sen. Rob Standridge (R), would ban all books that “make as their primary subject the study of sex, sexual preferences, sexual activity, sexual perversion, sex-based classifications, sexual identity, or gender identity.” Teachers and librarians would be fired if they were caught with such books, and the school district could be sued $10,000 per day if the books remain on site.
  • Florida: Three bills attack LGBTQ inclusion in schools in related ways. H6087, sponsored by Mike Beltran (R) is a ban on distributing “harmful materials to minors” in schools including books describing nudity or sexual conduct. HB1305, sponsored by Rep. David Borrero (R) would charge school staff with a felony if books or other materials shared with students are deemed “obscene,” “harmful,” or “inappropriate” to minors. HB1557, titled ‘Parental Rights in Education’ and sponsored by Rep. Joe Harding (R), is a ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill that bans discussion in schools about sexual orientation and gender identity.
  • Iowa:  Under the state’s SSB3079, introduced by Sen. Amy Sinclair (R), students would not be allowed to check “obscene materials” out of a school library without parents permission. According to Iowa code, that means any book that includes references to masturbation (such as ‘Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret’ by Judy Blume) or sex (a wide swath of literature.)
  • Arizona: HB2439 Rep. Beverly Pingerelli (R), would out LGBTQ students to their parents by mandating that school libraries give parents a list of every library book checked out by the student, and would allow “Objection to a learning material or activity on the basis that the material or activity is harmful includes objection to the material or activity because it questions beliefs or practices in sex, morality or religion.” Would require that the school board approve every single book used in libraries or classrooms, and would require that libraries publish elaborate lists of every book in the collection for “public review.” https://legiscan.com/AZ/text/HB2439/id/2478240


TIMELINE OF SELECT RECENT INCIDENTS

January 2022: Heated debate at Seattle middle school board meeting after principal bans several books with LGBTQ themes from library.

January 2022: Iowa senate president Jake Chapman promises to introduce legislation that would charge teachers and school librarians with a felony for letting students access certain books, suggesting teachers have a “sinister agenda” and seek to “normalize sexually deviant behavior against our children” in a January 10th speech at the state legislature.

January 2022: McMinn County, Tennessee school board votes to ban Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus, considered a literary classic about the Holocaust, because of a panel containing nudity. In the same school board meeting, board member Mike Cochran complained that children were being exposed to a “vulgar” 1921  Broadway song—’I’m Wild About Harry,’  notably from the first successful African American Broadway show Shuffle Along—because it contained the word ‘ecstasy.’

November 2021: A Loudon County, VA school board member required police protection at her home after death threats related to her support of a transgender-inclusive student policy.

November 2021: The New Hampshire chapter of Moms For Liberty offers a $500 bounty to anyone that “catches” a public school teacher breaking the state’s educational gag order law that restricts teachers from teaching about discrimination based on, among other factors, sexual orientation and gender identity.

October 2021: An Iowa school board candidate proposes investigating students who check out LGBTQ books, notifying their parents, and ordering school librarians who stock LGBTQ books before the school board for questioning.

October 2021: Threats of violence against school librarians, authors, school board members rise, prompting Attorney General Merrick Garland to send a letter calling for a national law enforcement response, and prompting the FBI to create a new “threat tag” for school board incidents in November. While some incidents are triggered by school mask mandates, the issues of teaching race and LGBTQ topics often overlap at aggressive or violent school board meetings.

July 2021: School board recall efforts surge around the country as conservative groups aim to remove board members who support inclusive learning and Covid-19 safety protocols.

October 2021: A school board member in Brevard County, FL reported threats made against her and her family, including a false abuse claim filed against her to the Department of Children and Families. The board had recently decided to remove the LGBTQ graphic novel ‘Gender Queer’ from school libraries without review after raucous board meetings, largely due to the activism of Moms For Liberty, a Brevard County-based national organization linked to book bans around the country.

September 2021: The notoriously violent group Proud Boys enters school grounds in Oregon, triggering school lockdown. Proud Boys are known for open-carrying weapons and protesting LGBTQ rights, and were onsite to protest Covid-19 safety protocols.

Ongoing: In South Carolina and Texas, governors have tasked their state Departments of Education to launch investigations into whether LGBTQ books are present in school libraries

Ongoing: Anti-LGBTQ activists have abused the criminal justice system by filing or encouraging parents to file police reports against school districts in Florida, New Jersey, and Utah, charging obscenity over books with LGBTQ themes.


RELATED ISSUES AND CONTEXT

The 2021 surge in efforts to censor books in school districts did not arise in a vacuum. Schools have increasingly become a political battleground, targeted especially by opponents of LGBTQ rights and racial justice. The debate over how to safely reopen schools during the COVID-19 pandemic has led to increasingly aggressive pushback against school boards over mask and  vaccine requirements and curriculum, including LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum and the history of slavery and racial inequity in the U.S.

Background on anti-LGBTQ efforts in schools

●  In 2016, legislation targeting transgender people’s access to restrooms and other sex-segregated facilities, HB 2, was passed in North Carolina. That spurred the Obama administration to issue trans-inclusive school guidance to protect students, and a wave of ‘bathroom bills’ swept state legislatures in 2017—about half of which targeted schools specifically.

●  Throughout 2020-2021, ten states passed laws that effectively ban transgender youth from participating in school sports. This wave of legislation was the result of campaigning and legal efforts helmed by a handful of anti-LGBTQ organizations, including but not limited to the Promise To America’s Children coalition (helmed by Alliance Defending Freedom, Heritage Foundation, and Family Policy Alliance. The ‘Promise’ aims to eradicate transgender-inclusive school policies, LGBTQ-inclusive education, and other policies that currently or would in the future protect LGBTQ students from abusive parents, therapists, or other problems the coalition deems fundamental parental rights issues.

●  Currently, 6 states (Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, and Alabama) have “Don’t Say Gay” laws prohibiting teachers and school staff from addressing LGBTQ people or issues, and 4 more states (Arkansas, Tennessee, Montana, and Arizona) require parental notification before LGBTQ-inclusive curricula can be taught—and allow parents to opt their children out of such curricula once notified. Only 7 states require that school curricula be LGBTQ-inclusive.

●  Before the pandemic in 2020, a broad coalition issued a statement condemning attacks on LGBTQ stories in schools and libraries after several years of increasing pressure for book removals and event cancellations.

●  So far in 2022, there have been 91 anti-LGBTQ school policy bills filed. Many of those bills employed confusing language about "parents' rights" or "obscene" or "harmful" material to justify targeted anti-LGBTQ discrimination in schools. Some of the laws that have passed have had drastic consequences that took parents by surprise; for example while Florida's "Don't Say Gay" law (HB 1557) received widespread press attention, it was a lesser-known law, HB 1467, that resuted in beloved digital libraries being taken offline overnight and without warning for school children statewide.

Background on anti-racial justice and “CRT” efforts in schools

●  In 2021, nine states passed legislation banning the teaching of “critical race theory” in schools, and nearly 20 more states introduced similar legislation that did not pass, according to the Brookings Institution. Many of these bills included bans on teaching about specific gender- and sex-related concepts, such as sexism and “sexual diversity” (code for LGBTQ). Many of the laws also include outright bans on diversity training for school staff.

●  News coverage of the anti-CRT laws often leaves out the fact that among the 9 state laws passed banning teachers from teaching about racism in schools, eight of the laws also explicitly prohibit teachers from addressing certain concepts involving sex, gender, and LGBTQ people.