The freedom to read is under assault in the United States—particularly in public schools—curtailing students’ freedom to explore words, ideas, and books, as well as to engage in a full and accurate civics education in the classroom. In the 2022–23 school year, from July 1, 2022, to June 30, 2023, PEN America recorded 3,362 instances of book bans in US public school classrooms and libraries. These bans removed student access to 1,557 unique book titles, the works of over 1,480 authors, illustrators, and translators. Authors whose books are targeted for banning are disproportionately female, LGBTQ+, and/or Black, Indigenous or of color.
Since the beginning of 2022, at least eight laws were passed restricting what teachers can say about gender, race, sexuality, American history, or inequality in K-12 schools and in some colleges/universities. According to PEN America, restrictive curriculum bills introduced over the last two years have become law in 15 states, affecting an estimated 122 million Americans. Most measures target classroom instruction related to race, but a growing number also seek to limit how teachers and students may communicate about topics including sexual orientation and gender identity. Restrictive curriculum bills introduced this year have also tended to be more punitive compared to those of previous years, according to the PEN America report, and more than half of bills introduced in 2022 contained explicit punishments for violations, including private rights of action, large monetary fines, faculty termination and loss of institutional accreditation.
In Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District v. Pico, 457 U.S. 853 (1982), the Supreme Court stated: “Our Constitution does not permit the official suppression of ideas.” The ruling affirmed the “special characteristics” of the school library, making it “especially appropriate for the recognition of the First Amendment rights of students,” including the right to access information and ideas. The central holding of Pico, on page 872 of the decision, was “[L]ocal school boards may not remove books from school library shelves simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books and seek by their removal to prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion.”
Kasey Meehan of PEN America provides an overview of the rise in book bans in the U.S., followed by a panel discussion on the harmful effects of book bans and curriculum limitations and what role the law can play in combating them.