The Growing Threat of Censorship in Literature in Schools

Cash Mendenhall

A month ago, a small school district pursued a motion that would put them on the front pages of the New York Times, a deeply disconcerting throwback to decades-old concerns on censorship, free press, and education. The ten-member board in McMinn County, Tennessee, voted unanimously to ban the graphic novel Maus by Art Spiegelman, a nonfiction blend of art and prose that details his parent’s experiences in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp during the Holocaust. The depiction of genocide that the book portrays was considered inappropriate due to its inclusion of violence and swear words. One board member admitted he’d “only read the reviews”.

The incident in Tennessee is not isolated – according to the American Library Association, there were 330 “book challenges” nationally in the fall of 2021, an uptick from numbers in recent years. Free speech activists see it as a trend that should cause extreme worry, as the extremities of the challenges can affront constitutional norms and widely accepted notions of free expression. Dr. Jeffery Sachs, who tracks free speech in education at Acadia University, said in a Vox interview that “you’re seeing really powerful movements underway to constrain expression. It’s not about discussing ideas objectively. It’s about not discussing them at all.”

The book bannings come on the tail of an increasing level of concern about other school board issues, many of which also touch on First Amendment rights. Critical race theory, an inflated avatar of modern values targeted by high-profile Republican politicians, has been banned in many school districts and states. Utah had a recently proposed bill advocating for “educational transparency”, forcing teachers to put the nature of their curriculum up to parental review. More extreme proposals include forcing teachers onto publicly accessible webcams and forcing parental consent on students wishing to join LGBTQ+ clubs and student organizations. The American right has incorporated school districts as a frontline in the battle over free speech, as conservative efforts to teach an ideologically slanted version of American history, moral values, and societal structure.

The history of book banning in the United States is a long one, from 17th-century book burnings in New England to the spike in book challenges during the Reagan administration. Much of the legal precedent for such challenges in the 20th century was set by the Comstock law, which regulated the grounds on which literature could be banned. Using the law, some of the most challenged books after World War Two include Huckleberry Finn, The Leaves of Grass, and On the Origin of Species. Salman Rushdie’s novels and the Harry Potter series have been other prominent targets. Activists see the frequency and extremity of book bannings as a bellwether of grassroots pushback to free speech. That bellwether is trending up, signaling danger for the freedom of American educators and students.

Book bannings are a foundational challenge to the rights of public education and the unfiltered access to information and opinions that are necessary to become truly educated. Censorship doesn’t protect children, it harms them, pushing legitimate ideas, legitimate art, and legitimate expressions of truth underground. Sanitized, Americanized, conservative, and ‘safe’ versions of literature teach our students little, and slanted ideological education is not an education at all. Truly foundational American values are free expression, free access to ideas, and free expression of dissent – not Orwellian approval of controversial ideas by the most change-averse elements of political society.

West has yet to deal with a book challenge and has a good record of battling censorship, but that does not entirely preclude the threat. The freedom of expression in our community is under threat so long as no precautions are taken, and the right to open information is necessary for West to continue to thrive as a nurturing academic environment.

There are, however, solutions, and if we can get in front of the problem before it metastasizes. Legislative protections at the state and local level protecting books and curriculum in public schools may seem redundant, but it allows protection at the level that these challenges are often raised. National messaging from federal agencies and further protection from Supreme Court precedent and the Department of Education can help, too. Above all, grassroots action to protect the rights of books and educators meets book challenges where they are and presents a compelling counterargument to the forces of censorship in our community.

To truly protect children, we must protect their right to learn, to be exposed to ideas that some will necessarily find egregious and unacceptable. Knowing what others think will sometimes be knowing what you disagree with, which is necessary for any educational maturity. Go deeper than the surface, even if it makes you uncomfortable. Don’t just read the reviews.