Want to Know How Far-Reaching the Right-Wing Movement Against Free Expression in Schools Is?

Want to Know How Far-Reaching the Right-Wing Movement Against Free Expression in Schools Is?

Want to Know How Far-Reaching the Right-Wing Movement Against Free Expression in Schools Is?

PEN America just released a scary report.


PEN America just released a new report that illuminates how far-reaching the right-wing movement against free expression in schools has become. Book bans increased by 33 percent during the 2022–23 school year, compared to 2021–22—which was already an exceptional year for literary censorship.

More than revealing the scale of the bans, the report also offers insight into a few of the organizations behind them: Moms for Liberty, Citizens Defending Freedom, and Parents’ Rights in Education. According to the report, a staggering 86 percent of book bans last year occurred in school districts with a local chapter of one of these three groups.

The groups use a range of tactics to shape the ideology of their local curricula—from taking over school boards to enlisting parents to protest, to promoting restrictive legislation. To understand the extent of their commitment is to understand what it will take to fight back.

These groups make little effort to hide their intentions. The Vermont chapter of Parents’ Rights in Education hosted an event earlier this year for “parents fed up with transgender and DEI education,” while the national organization claims that schools are “utilizing material from Marxist doctrine” to perpetuate “anti-American, anti-white, and anti-capitalist sentiments amongst students.”

They don’t just air grievances. Their website offers free trainings for parents to help them testify to school boards—or even get elected to them. They advocate for bathroom bills and teacher restrictions and laws requiring school staff to out queer students to their parents. And of course, they’re pushing for book bans—though the organization’s executive director would have you believe these aren’t real bans, because you can still purchase the books in question “via booksellers or the Internet.”

Citizens Defending Freedom is even less subtle—their site boasts endorsements from disgraced former Trump adviser Mike Flynn and disgraced current MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell. They successfully campaigned for the Texas State Board of Education to dissociate from the American Library Association (which they call a “woke organization”), and want other states to do the same. One chapter recently challenged over 100 books as “age-inappropriate” for Fort Worth’s school libraries, including The Handmaid’s Tale—even though banning The Handmaid’s Tale sounds like something out of The Handmaid’s Tale.

Then there’s Moms for Liberty. When it launched in 2021, the organization was originally focused on fighting against Covid-19 protections—like mask and vaccine mandates—in schools. Now they spend their time electing school board members who share their concerns, and flooding board meetings with parents who are outraged that their kids are reading books about interracial relationships, hurricanes, and male seahorses carrying eggs.

When Moms for Liberty gets a book banned, not only does it deprive one district of that specific text; it can set a dangerous standard. Earlier this year, the group successfully banned a graphic-novel version of The Diary of Anne Frank from a Florida high school—which included passages about puberty that other adaptations omitted. Flash-forward to last week in Texas: a teacher was fired for assigning the same book to her eighth grade reading class.

Never mind that those eighth graders are the same age Frank was when she wrote her diary, experiencing puberty themselves and asking similar questions about their bodies—including, as Frank wrote, curiosities about “the little hole underneath.” Parents are supposed to pretend that exposure to that level of graphic detail will permanently warp the minds of their 14-year-olds.

Meanwhile, in February, a South Carolina high school teacher assigned her AP English students Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me. Two students objected to the book’s discussion of Blackness in America, and reported their teacher to a school board member who was endorsed by Moms for Liberty. Because a state proviso explicitly prohibits lessons that make students “feel discomfort” about their race, the curriculum was immediately abandoned, and the books taken away.

But for all the dystopian stories about students’ being “protected” from an honest education, these censorious groups have to reckon with a powerful adversary: the students themselves.

According to the PEN report, students across the country are pushing back. In Lancaster, Pa., middle school students staged a walkout to protest the potential removal of LGBTQ content from their school libraries. In Plattsmouth, Neb., a school board meeting had to be moved to a larger venue because a flood of students and parents were set to protest a similar move. And two high school sophomores in Orchard Park, N.Y., have founded an organization of their own to fight book bans: Students Protecting Education.

These students are speaking up, organizing, and crucially, recognizing just how much power is held by school boards. As know-nothings continue to invest time and resources into showing up at meetings and winning these seats, those who care about the freedom to read can’t afford not to do the same.

Too often, even the most well-intentioned adults forget how mature and intelligent kids can be. They can handle challenging material. They can learn and grow from discomfort. And as their rights to do those things are challenged, they might just lead their own resistance.

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