How conservative and liberal book bans differ amid rise in literary restrictions

Anti-censorship groups say conservatives are behind the rise in book challenges.

January 12, 2023, 5:08 AM

The country saw a growing effort to ban books in schools and libraries nationwide in 2022, and researchers expect to see more efforts to challenge books in 2023 as some Republican-backed laws across the country aim to restrict LGBTQ and racial content in school books.

While activists across the political spectrum have sought to restrict or protest some forms of literature, the vast majority of book challenges are from conservative-leaning groups, researchers say. Only a handful of efforts have also come from liberal sources, mainly targeting books with racist or offensive language.

"If you get five people and they walk through a library and they are allowed to remove anything they think might get someone in trouble for it being there -- Well, they're going to start pulling all kinds of stuff, a conservative person and progressive person," Jonathan Friedman, the director of free expression and education programs at PEN America, told ABC News. "We all have different issues that we think shouldn't be in books -- historic representations of racism, for example, something like Mark Twain is just as likely to [be seen as potentially controversial] as is 'Gender Queer,'" a coming-of-age memoir about the author's LGBTQ identity.

There were at least 2,532 book challenges from July 2021 to June 2022, affecting 1,648 book titles, according to a report by the free expression protection group PEN America.

"We're in danger of removing from libraries, all kinds of materials, some of which are seen as classic forms of literature and some of which are now in danger of not becoming classic works of literature for the future because they're being censored in this way," Friedman said.

According to the American Library Association, most book challenges fail to remove books from classroom or library shelves completely. However, any book that is challenged is considered to be a "banned book."

What content is being targeted?

Books targeted by conservative groups were overwhelmingly written by or about people of color and LGBTQ people, according to anti-censorship researchers. According to PEN American and the ALA, many of the challenges reference the sexual content or inherent messaging in the books.

Banned Books Lists from the ALA show that these groups have challenged young adult books such as "The Hate U Give" and "The Bluest Eye," which discuss racism in the United States, as well as book titles like "Gender Queer" and "All Boys Aren't Blue" which discuss LGBTQ identities, sexuality and gender.

Meanwhile, liberal efforts criticized or restricted books in the name of anti-racism or progressive ideals.

PHOTO: FILE - Cover of the book 'Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Tom Sawyer's Comrade)' by Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens), 1884. The illustration, by E. M. Kimble, shows a young boy who stands in front of a picket fence while wearing a straw hat.
Cover of the book 'Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Tom Sawyer's Comrade)' by Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens), 1884. The illustration, by E. M. Kimble, shows a young boy who stands in front of a picket fence while wearing a straw hat.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images, FILE

Books like “Of Mice and Men;” “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” and several Dr. Seuss titles have been challenged in some schools and libraries due to racist language or imagery throughout the years, including the use of the n-word or insensitive imagery of racial stereotypes, according to the ALA.

Where are book-banning efforts coming from?

The conservative effort is coming from some legislators and conservative political groups like Moms For Liberty and No Left Turn in Education, PEN America found. These organizations say they aim to give parents more of a say about what children read in the classroom or preserve “principles" of "liberty" or "freedom," according to their websites.

Legislative efforts in states like Florida, Utah, Missouri, Texas and more have also aimed to restrict the lessons and content educators could teach that include certain perspectives on race, gender and sexual orientation in the classroom.

Florida's Parental Rights in Education law, and others like it nationwide, is aimed at removing LGBTQ content and identities from being discussed in some classrooms, while laws like New Hampshire's prohibit "divisive concepts" on race and gender in the classroom.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and state lawmaker Rep. Matt Krause campaigned in 2021 to investigate a list of around 850 books that "might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex," in a letter first reported by Texas Tribune.

Free expression and anti-censorship advocates said these ongoing efforts have sounded alarm bells. They say these laws punish or threaten the livelihoods of educators who break the vague restrictions on classroom curriculum.

"It's shifting from parents and citizens giving lists to school boards, to laws," Friedman said. "And that's a really significant shift because there's a huge difference between a school board responding to parental ire and a school board responding to threat of punishment from the government."

Experts said liberal or progressive efforts are typically individualized and localized, unlike conservative groups that have expanded into a nationwide movement against certain books.

Several progressive literary groups, including We Need Diverse Books, have denounced book bans or restrictions and instead focused on diversifying literature.

Amid the U.S. racial reckoning in 2020, the Burbank Unified School District in California removed several titles from required reading lists in several schools for their use of the n-word after complaints from local parents and a review by administrators. However, the books were allowed to be read in school, carried in school libraries or read in small groups.

Several other schools have faced similar changes to their reading lists, according to the free expression advocacy group PEN America's Index of School Book Bans.

“We believe professional educators are well-equipped to guide students in reading books that may contain challenging or potentially distressing content, and that reckoning with books that depict the complexities of history and modern society is part of the purpose of an education,” PEN America stated in a letter to the Burbank Unified School District for prohibiting instructional materials with the “n-word” from mandatory reading lists.

In response, teachers and administrators established criteria for creating core reading lists, established professional development opportunities to learn how to talk about race and racism, and continued diversity, equity and inclusion work.

PHOTO: FILE - The Culture Carton boxed book subscription includes John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men as well as pencils and a leather bound notepad May 16, 2018 in Washington, DC.
The Culture Carton boxed book subscription includes John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men as well as pencils and a leather bound notepad May 16, 2018 in Washington, DC.
The Washington Post via Getty Images, FILE

"Throughout this process, everyone has agreed that our current curriculum does not represent Black students and families in a positive and uplifting manner," read a letter from Burbank Superintendent Matt Hill to BUSD families and employees about the restrictions. "What is worse, many have acknowledged that these books contribute to perpetuating generational trauma."

He continued, "This is not about censorship or banning books outright, this is about determining which books are mandatory and which books are optional,"

The BUSD administration has not responded to ABC News' request for comment.

Organizations against censorship, including PEN America and the American Library Association Office of Intellectual Freedom, have fought against all efforts to ban books, calling it censorship.

However, organizations who’ve long tracked book bans nationwide said complaints by liberal groups are not comparable to the large wave of conservative book challenges being seen across the country.