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Lawmakers clash over book bans, censorship in schools

Pulling books from school and library shelves unfairly shields children from diverse viewpoints, Senate Democrats said — but Republicans argued such decisions should be left up to parents.

WASHINGTON (CN) — Congress may have a history of tackling literary censorship, but lawmakers were far from a bipartisan consensus Tuesday as the Senate Judiciary Committee met to examine the ongoing debate about children’s access to books in schools and libraries.

Tensions have flared in school board meetings across the country in recent years, as parents and educators come to blows over efforts to keep certain books out of minors' reach. While supporters of such action argue parents should have the final say in what content is made available to children, opponents frame the push as censorship and a ploy to shield minors from discussions of gender identity, racism and other issues.

Several high-profile titles have been caught up in the debate. Notably, a Tennessee school district voted unanimously in January 2022 to ban Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel "Maus," a retelling of the events of the Holocaust. The board cited what they called scenes of profanity and nudity in the book as rationale for pulling the book off library shelves.

On Tuesday, Senate Democrats argued that such efforts deny students the right to learn about important historical events.

“Limiting access to a book about anti-Semitism or racism does not protect students from the actual history or the reality that hate still exists,” said Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, who chairs the upper chamber’s judiciary committee.

Durbin called concerns from Republicans and some parents that sexually explicit material could be made available to minors through books “a distraction from the real challenge,” claiming that one out of every four books challenged by school districts across America feature LGBTQ characters and themes.

“No one is ever aiming for sexually explicit content to be available at an elementary school library or at a children’s section in a library,” the lawmaker said.

Durbin also pointed out that Congress has previously legislated on issues of censorship, alluding to the 1873 Comstock Act, which criminalized the sale of obscene literature. The Senate in 1954 also held hearings on comic books which resulted in a decadeslong censorship rule in the comics industry.

Committee Republicans, meanwhile, raised questions about Congress’ role in deciding what books should be available in schools and libraries.

“What am I supposed to do?” asked South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, the judiciary panel’s ranking member. “Am I supposed to take over every school board in the country and veto their decisions about what books go into public schools?”

Graham said the onus should be on elected school boards and parents to decide whether certain books should remain on library shelves.

“If you’re a parent out there listening to this hearing, I would encourage you to advocate for your child,” the lawmaker said. “You have an obligation as a parent to lend your voice to a cause you think helps your child develop in the right way.”

Pushing back on Republicans’ argument was Illinois Secretary of State Alexi Giannoulias, who was invited to testify at Tuesday’s hearing. The state official agreed parents should be able to decide what content is age-appropriate for their kids, but said there are limits to that freedom.

“I could never imagine a world where I would tell another family what books their kids should or should not be allowed to read,” Giannoulias said.

The Illinois official also pushed back on claims that Congress would be overstepping its bounds by getting involved in local book bans.

“The ultimate irony is that by instituting more book bans, these groups want the government to have more of a say in telling everyone’s children what to think and believe. That’s government overreach at its peak.”

Giannoulias’s comments invited a testy exchange with Graham, during which the South Carolina Republican accused him of telling parents and taxpayers to “shut up.”

“When you have a public library, and you have a school board, somebody decides what books go in and what books don’t go in,” Graham said. “Lend your voice to the cause. It’s okay to speak out for your community.”

Giannoulias, who wasn’t given a chance to respond to Graham’s accusations until after the senator had left the chamber, was incensed by the allegation that he was fighting against the interests of parents.

“This whole notion that protecting the right to read and fighting against censorship is somehow anti-parent is one of the most ludicrous arguments I’ve ever heard,” he said. “What we’re saying is, don’t let one parent who disagrees with a certain worldview determine whether or not a book should be in a library.”

Lawmakers and witnesses also sparred Tuesday over the use of the word "ban" in describing challenges to the availability of certain books in schools and libraries.

“Headlines and research papers by activist organizations have intentionally muddied the waters between pre-World War II book burning in Berlin and what’s really happening in America’s schools in 2023,” said Nicole Neily, president of grassroots advocacy group Parents Defending Education. “If you take away one thing from this hearing, know this: Families’ concerns about books in schools is not book banning.”

Max Eden, a research fellow at conservative think tank the American Enterprise Institute, echoed that sentiment, arguing that some books commonly understood as banned in schools and libraries are still widely available elsewhere.

However Emily Knox, an associate professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, pointed out that although the phrase "banning books" has “a nice alliterative ring” to it, it doesn’t accurately describe the effort to keep certain books off the shelf.

“What we often say is that these books are not banned, but that they are challenged,” Knox explained. “In libraries, we consider all sorts of issues when books are called into a collection — not just whether we agree with what is seen in the collection, but also how we show many different viewpoints and ideas.”

While Tuesday’s hearing didn’t appear to change any minds, Durbin said he hoped Democrats could meet Republicans in the middle on fighting censorship, which he framed as an urgent bipartisan concern.

“These efforts to ban books violate our most cherished principles as Americans and betray our values as a nation,” Durbin said. “We must protect students and their freedom to read.”

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