I heard it said recently that the biggest “back-to-school” story this fall was book banning.
Among the recent news stories you may have missed:
Summer Boismier, a teacher in Oklahoma quit in protest after being punished for a banned-books sign.
An award-winning, 54-year-old high school newspaper in Nebraska was shut down days after publishing an LGBTQ-themed issue for Pride Month.
In small-town Idaho, a library director resigned months after taking the job with high hopes for building the library “back to being the center of the community” after she and her staff were repeatedly threatened—including at her home—by armed protesters.
From “Fun” to “Fear”
In the case of Oklahoma teacher Summer Boismier, she is by all accounts an excellent teacher. In 2019, she posted this note from a student who said: “I have always hated English class my whole life. I’v never injoyed writing anything ever. Not this year though. I don’t know how but you have made English class fun for me.”
In the Before Times, the Oklahoma State Department of Education named Summer Boismier a Rising Star in 2019 and Teacher of the Year in 2020.
But in 2022, things changed. As Oklahoma’s new school censorship laws took effect, The Washington Post reported:
Boismier… asked for guidance on personal classroom libraries. She’d spent her own money to build hers into a collection of more than 500 books, many of the texts selected to broaden lessons beyond official reading lists she said are often stacked with works written by “mostly old, dead White guys.”
To abide by the new censorship laws, she “covered her books with butcher paper.” But:
She added a touch of defiance, scrawling a message in permanent marker across the paper.
“Books the state doesn’t want you to read,” it said.
And if that wasn’t bad enough, she also gave her sophomore English students access to a QR code that they “could scan with their phones, taking them to an application for a Brooklyn Public Library card.”
This crime was so egregious that Oklahoma Secretary of Education Ryan Walters insisted that her teaching license be revoked immediately because “there is no place for a teacher with a liberal political agenda in the classroom.”
NOTE: This is the same Secretary of Education Ryan Walters who this year was accused by a fellow Republican of violating Oklahoma’s new “discomfort law” by teaching a history class designed the send the message that “white is better than Black.”
The Viking Saga saga
In the case of Nebraska’s 54-year-old student newspaper The Viking Saga, MSNBC’s Ali Velshi explained what happened and discussed the case with Mindy Rush Chipman, the ACLU of Nebraska’s Legal Director:
As Ali Velshi and others have pointed out, high school newspapers are where many of today’s best reporters and writers started out.
Highlighting the case on Twitter, University of Alabama Professor Stefan Kertesz, MD, wrote: “In the 1980s-90s my school paper published on HIV, gay identity, sex, homelessness. We became better writers & won 16 major awards.”
In 2022, the same kind of reporting gets the entire paper cancelled.
Meanwhile in Idaho
In a sign that the new “neutral” CNN hasn’t yet gone full fascist, the network did deliver a detailed report about the threats and intimidation that Boundary County Library Director Kimber Glidden and her staff faced in North Idaho.
As Glidden said in her resignation letter: “Nothing in my background could have prepared me for the political atmosphere of extremism, militant Christian fundamentalism, intimidation tactics, and threatening behavior currently being employed in the community.”
“The Biggest Threat Is Apathy”
In thinking about this article, the phrase “Censorship Is Unamerican” popped into my head.
In my mind, it was one of those timeless sayings that I had absorbed by osmosis simply by living in America for more than three decades.
In reality, it was a slogan (and artwork) for MTV’s Rock the Vote campaign in 1990 and people don’t seem to say it very much. Among the Google results for the phrase, though, one internet commenter does point out: “The people on the ‘right side of history’ are usually fighting for freedom and liberty, not censorship and re-education camps.”
I interviewed Jonathan Friedman, director of free expression and education at PEN America, about book banning here on Substack back in February.
Since then we are already seeing newer and more troubling data about the effects this new GOP censorship push is already having in our schools.
PEN America released a new report on “America’s Censored Classrooms” in August.
And this week, a new survey of 720 school librarians by the School Library Journal, found that 97% of respondents have weighed the possibility of a challenge when considering the purchase of a book.
Already, 29% of school librarians say they have not bought a book because of LGBTQ content. And that number is 42% among small town and rural librarians.
In addition, 33% of school librarians say that they have not bought a book because of “possible reaction from parents” and 14% say they have not done so “to avoid professional consequences.”
As one librarian tweeted in response to this data: “This is also the lasting damage of book banning trends. Bland collections that demote the desire to read.”
This morning a quote by Yoon Ha Lee jumped out at me: “The biggest threat is apathy. Without the will to do something, however small, the tyrants win.”
That quote will be shone onto buildings at Rockefeller Center in NYC next week as part of SPEECH ITSELF, a new Jenny Holzer installation celebrating PEN America’s century-long defense of the written word.
Meanwhile in Iran, China and Saudi Arabia
We can see what happens when the tyrants win simply by reading some of the recent news stories from the most “Unamerican” countries around the world.
In Iran, two women, Zahra Seddiqi Hamedani, 31, and Elham Choubdar, 24, have just been “condemned to death… because of their links to the LGBTQ+ community on social media.”
In China, which since 2017 has arrested some 1.5 million Uyghurs for the purposes of “reeducation,” the Uyghur writer Perhat Tursun (“China’s Rushdie”) remains “disappeared, reportedly sentenced to 16 years in prison.” But at least Tursun’s voice hasn’t been completely silenced. As Codastory.com reported this week:
The celebrated Uyghur writer’s work has received its first English translation by anthropologist Darren Byler and an anonymous Uyghur linguist at an urgent time.
Meanwhile Saudi Arabia, perhaps inspired by Ron DeSantis, is one of several Middle Eastern states now threatening to censor Disney+.
In August, Saudi Arabia arrested Salma al-Shehab, a 24-year-old Leeds University (UK) student, on a trip home and sentenced her to 34 years in prison for using Twitter.
Of course, it’s easy to think the worst abuses against free expression only happen in far-off places.
But this is no time for apathy.
The distance between Iran and Oklahoma is getting shorter every day.
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P.S. Banned Books Week 2022 is happening Sept. 18-24. So if you believe that Censorship Is Unamerican, PEN America is inviting “readers, authors, educators, librarians, and everyone who opposes censorship in America to get involved” and help #FreeTheBooks!
Thank you for this hugely important essay. I retired to Oklahoma last year (from New York) and am building a museum designed to celebrating "being inspired to think for yourself rather than being victimized by domineering authorities". I'm doing this because - as a child - I found the ability to resist my angry, hateful, bigoted father's efforts to dominate my life through a variety of things I saw on television... what I've identified as the positive side of the American Spirit. While my museum... the Route 66 Spirit of America Museum in Stroud, OK... will not directly address book banning, it will show the power of being inspired to "think for yourself so you can boldly go where you haven't gone before" by any number of real and fictional people and stories.... from the space program to Star Trek... from Walter Cronkite to Jimmy Stewart movies... from Muhammad Ali to Buckminster Fuller and more...