Subcommittee Hearing Focuses on School Library Content

A hearing held October 19 by the House Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education Subcommittee on graphic content in school libraries drew testimony from both witnesses concerned about the suppression of material and others troubled by the content they see in school libraries.

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A hearing held October 19 by the House Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education Subcommittee on graphic content in school libraries drew testimony from both witnesses concerned about the suppression of material and others troubled by the content they see in school libraries.

The hearing, titled “Protecting Kids: Combatting Graphic, Explicit Content in School Libraries,” looked at whether local communities are within their right to remove what they consider inappropriate books from school libraries.

Subcommittee Chairman Aaron Bean (R-FL) said, “Of course they do. School boards, communities, and parents constantly set standards of decency.”

However, Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR), the ranking member of the subcommittee of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, pointed out that book bans are having a disproportionate impact on books with LGBTQIA+ themes and authors and representing people of color.

She cited research showing that “as of 2021, more than 4 million students had their freedom to read curtailed because of book bans. That includes students across more than 5,000 schools, 138 school districts, and 32 states.” She also noted PEN America found that 41 percent of banned content focuses on LGBTQIA+ themes, protagonists, or characters, while 40 percent focuses on characters of color.

She was supported by testimony from Jonathan Friedman, director of free expression and education programs at PEN America. “Today, we face an alarming attack on free expression, on the freedom to read, learn, and teach,” he said. “Organized groups of activists and some politicians have launched a campaign to exert ideological control over public education, unprecedented in its scope, scale, and size.”

Citing figures from a research project launched by PEN America to track and record book bans nationwide, he said that during the 2022–23 school year, there were more than 3,000 instances of banned titles—books locked in an administrator’s office, moved to another area, or removed from circulation—an increase of 33 percent over the prior year. These occurred in 153 public school districts across 33 states.

Bonamici also noted that at least seven states have passed “draconian” laws in the past two years “subjecting school librarians to years of imprisonment and fines for providing books deemed to be explicit, obscene, or harmful.

The laws are passed "under the pretext of parental rights,” she stated, when, “in reality, it's a coordinated and apparently well-funded vocal minority of parents and conservative organizations pushing their personal agenda on others.”

But Lindsey Smith, a parent activist, and Megan Degenfelder, a Wyoming Department of Education supervisor, testified that there are legitimate concerns about inappropriate content, irrespective of whether it involves particular groups of people, adding that those concerns are undermining trust in public education.

Smith, who chairs the Montgomery County, MD, chapter of Moms for Liberty, said, “This is not a case of heterosexual versus LGBT+. Nor is this a political issue or, as many would call it, book banning. This is about the innocence and protection of our children.” It is time to leave sexually explicit books out of the school, she added, and refocus attention on the “the failing of our schools to our children in regards to reading, writing, and mathematics.”

Degenfelder, Wyoming State Superintendent of Public Instruction, told the committee, “The fundamental purpose of public education is to prepare students for jobs and to be good American citizens. But this purpose becomes compromised when our parents lose trust and confidence in our public schools.”

During her campaign last year, she said that at the top of the list of concerns about public education among voters was “fear of inappropriate and sexually explicit materials in schools. This issue is destroying trust and confidence in our public education.”

She said she is working with stakeholder groups to create statewide library guidance that will be released in the coming weeks, with sample definitions, model policy, and provisions for a transparent public process.

“Our committee includes parents, librarians, school administrators, school board members, all of varying backgrounds and viewpoints. This issue of sexually explicit material in schools must be addressed, so that we can return our focus to the fundamental purpose of education and regain trust in public education.”



On October 17, publisher Penguin Random House (PRH) sent a letter to the members of the subcommittee expressing alarm over the increase in book bans in public schools and libraries across the country.

The letter urged the subcommittee “to consider the long-term consequences of book ban laws on education and within our society, and to prioritize policies that empower educators, respect and enrich students, and uphold the First Amendment and the democratic ideals we cherish as Americans.

Bean and one of the witnesses, Max Eden, pushed back on the assertion that books are being banned.

“Removing a book from a library shelf is not akin to pouring gasoline on it and setting it ablaze. It’s not criminalizing the ownership of the book,” Bean said. “It’s not even making them less accessible. If you can check out a book from a public library, it’s not banned. If you can order a book from Amazon and have it delivered to your home the next day, it’s not banned. In fact, the most removed books are still wildly popular on Amazon.”

“In common usage, banned means ‘made unavailable.’ The most banned book, Gender Queer, is still available on Amazon,” Eden, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said in his testimony.

He said that a Heritage Foundation group that he was part of set out to assess how many of 2,532 books that PEN America’s 2022 report labeled as banned were actually removed from school libraries. Checking the catalogs, they found that nearly three-quarters of the books that PEN America labeled as banned were still in school libraries.

However, in its letter, PRH contended that the lack of access described by Bean and Eden did, in fact, constitute banning. “From restrictions to removals and rating systems, book bans take a variety of forms,” PRH stated. “Even if a student is theoretically able to obtain a book independently, bans communicate powerful stigmas that lead to fear and self-censorship.”

Friedman said that since PEN America began its research, “We have maintained a clear, consistent, and transparent methodology, with one guiding principle: student access. If on Monday, a student has access to a book and on Tuesday, she doesn’t as a result of a challenge over that book’s content, ideas, or themes, then that book has been banned. For that student, ready access to the book has been diminished or entirely restricted.”

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