Book Banning Debate Moves to U.S. Senate

The ongoing debate over the freedom to read moved to the chambers of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, which held a hearing September 12 entitled “Book Bans: How Censorship Limits Liberty and Literature.”

Seal of the United States SenateThe ongoing debate over the freedom to read moved to the chambers of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, which held a hearing September 12 entitled “Book Bans: How Censorship Limits Liberty and Literature.” The hearing was convened by Committee Chairman Dick Durbin (D-IL), in response to data from the American Library Association (ALA) revealing that between January 1 and August 31, ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom recorded 695 attempts to censor library materials and services, and documented challenges to 1,915 unique titles.

In his opening statement, Durbin said, “Let’s be clear,” he said. “Efforts to ban books are wrong, whether they come from the right or the left.”

But testimony from both sides of the aisle demonstrated sharp partisan divisions on the issue, involving a complex mix of issues such as parental control, attempts to suppress diverse books, state legislation established to combat book censorship, and the role of “Big Tech” in suppressing books with conservative views.



“We want our schools and libraries to be open and welcoming settings for education, not cultural battlefields,” said first witness Alexi Giannoulias, Illinois Secretary of State and state librarian, who spearheaded landmark anti–book banning state legislation that was signed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker in June.

“Our libraries have become targets [of] a movement that disingenuously claims to pursue freedom, but is instead promoting authoritarianism,” he testified. “Tragically, our libraries have become the thunderdomes of controversy and strife across our nation, the likes of which we’ve never seen before. These radical attacks on our libraries have divided our communities and our librarians have been harassed, threatened, and intimidated for simply doing their jobs.”

Other Judiciary Committee members showed little interest in following Illinois’s legislative lead, however. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) said, “Parents, in conjunction with state and local officials, must determine what is age-appropriate for kids, to ensure they are nurtured as they grow up,” using the example of No Child Left Behind—which “showed just how challenging it is for one approach to successfully help millions of students attending schools in thousands of classrooms across the country”—as an example of an ill-advised, one-size-fits-all law “enacted with the best of intentions.”



Witnesses on both sides of the aisle agreed on the importance of parental involvement. “I understand and respect that parents may choose to limit what their children read, especially at younger ages,” Durbin said. “But no parent should have the right to tell another parent’s child what they can and cannot read in school or at home.”

“Parents, and only parents, have the right and the responsibility to monitor the access of their children, and only their children, to library resources,” echoed Giannoulias.

In response, Nicole Neily, president and founder of the conservative nonprofit group Parents Defending Education, testified that when parents raise “reasonable concerns about subject matter appropriateness,” attempts are made to demonize them and chill their speech and activism. They “are mocked, are shamed, are intimidated and silenced and bullied by elected officials and community members who do not want them to speak up.”

At the heart of the “parental rights” advocates’ arguments was the issue of sexually charged content and whether librarians are promoting it. Durbin stated that no one is advocating for sexually explicit content in an elementary school library or the children’s section of a public library.

But committee member Mike Lee (R-UT) disagreed. “There is a goal here, and the goal is to sexualize children, to provide minors with sexually explicit material, and then hide this content from the parents, hide it by changing the messaging,” he said. “Of course, that is what someone would do if they were grooming your child, if someone were trying to sexualize your child. And make no mistake, that is what’s happened.”

Committee member Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) expressed concern over the role of “Big Tech” in suppressing conservative publications. There is “apparent concern or outrage over some of the books and things that are being banned or omitted or disallowed,” she said. “But there has been nothing said about what Big Tech platforms or major publishers are doing by banning or refusing to work with conservative authors.”

The committee also heard testimony from Max Eden, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a center-right think tank, who insisted that “books aren’t being banned,” adding, “The media keeps using the word banned. But that word doesn’t mean what you think it means. In common usage, banned means ‘made unavailable.’ Yet the most banned, Gender Queer, is still available on Amazon.“



Several witnesses warned about the dangers of removing books with diverse viewpoints. Emily Knox, associate professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign School of Information Sciences, author of Book Banning in 21st Century America , and board chair of the National Coalition Against Censorship, said, children’s literature expert "Rudine Sims Bishop argued books are mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. A book can help us understand each other better.”

Books can be windows, offering access to other people’s lives, she explained. But, she said, “What we see right now is that people are fixated on the idea that books are only mirrors and sliding glass doors. They only reflect something true about the reader themselves or the reader’s world, or they invite the reader to mimic an identity or action they read about.”

Knox told the committee that the titles that usually show up on banned books lists are “books that we consider to be diverse. And these are basically books about anybody who is not white, heterosexual, male.” Most commonly, challenged materials are about or by LGBTQIA+ people and people of color.

Committee member Cory Booker (D-NJ), whose family was among the first Black residents to move into the community where he grew up, said, “I remember the power of reading Invisible Man in my high school English class and the impact it had on my peers.”

Now, when he sees writers removed from the shelves, he said, “That’s when I begin to worry that we’re falling into this trap where we are failing to do what is necessary in a democracy” by creating “public forums, educational pathways that engender empathy and understanding, that engender deep knowledge, that engender the kind of sentiment that is necessary for democratic democracies to exist—not a culture of contempt for one another, but a deeper culture of understanding.”

One witness, Cameron Samuels, told the committee about his experiences as a student in Katy, TX, where a school district banned Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus, which tells of his father’s experiences as a Polish Jew and Holocaust survivor, for showing mice naked. Samuels said, “My ancestors fled religious persecution in Eurasia. I faced too many anti-Semitic remarks in school to remember. Classmates told me the Holocaust did not exist,” adding, “Books like Maus teach accurate reflections of Jewish identity.”

Samuels, who uses gender-neutral pronouns, said they also saw themselves in Mike Curato’s book Flamer, a frequently banned book about a gay Boy Scout who is bullied. “Flamer gave me words for my trauma,” Samuels recalled.



In an interview with Library Journal, Knox said the hearing was important because “this is an issue that is affecting libraries and schools across the country. To me it was a consciousness-raising exercise.”

When asked if the federal government should follow Illinois’s lead, Knox said, “I don't think it makes much sense to do it on a federal level. Districts for our public institutions are just so diffuse that that doesn't make a lot of sense.” Knox suggested that the Institute for Museum and Library Services could review the Illinois law and suggest best practices for dealing with challenges, including legislation.

“This law is just a good first step,” she said. “My overall feeling is that libraries in schools need more funding. That's really the best thing you can possibly do to support your local libraries and schools.”

“It’s not necessarily a bad thing to challenge books,” Knox added. “The problem we have right now is that people are challenging the entire institution. There is harassment of libraries.”

When asked about the moment in the hearing when Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) read out loud from All Boys Aren’t Blue and Gender Queer, she told LJ , “What I know is that they have not read those books. And when I say they haven’t read them, I don’t necessarily mean that they haven’t looked at the text. They haven’t actually thought about who the people are who wrote these memoirs, that they are human beings. What they’re concerned about is something that they themselves are bringing to the text—a fear of people wrestling with their gender identity, an idea that somehow describing sexual acts explicitly is inherently bad. There are all these other issues that really have nothing to do with the book.”

“Nothing new was said at the hearing, but it did draw attention to censorship among the nation’s highest legislators,” Alan Inouye, ALA senior director of public policy and government relations, told LJ. “Even if there is no legislation that results, the fact is that the profession of librarianship is being openly assailed. It will undoubtedly draw further scrutiny of local libraries by their legislators.”

Inouye pointed to the need for library advocates to support the Right to Read Act, sponsored by Sen. Jack Reed and Rep. Raúl Grijalva and endorsed by ALA, the American Association of School Librarians, and other groups. The bill, introduced in October 2022, would ensure all students, including low-income and minority students, children with disabilities, and English language learners, have access to an effective school library staffed by a certified school librarian.

However, he noted, some of the most important anticensorship authority has been on the books for a long time. Although the Illinois law is pathbreaking and “we should celebrate the leadership there,” he said, “at the federal level, we have the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution of the United States, which is already formidable national policy.”

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.



We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing