Emboldened by the national political climate, conservative parents and religious groups appear to be filing a rising number of challenges to books across the country.
Nationwide, book challenges generally occur at the school district level, making state records difficult to find. Recently, however, a few organizations have begun to keep track, as events such as Sept. 11 and political activism by religious conservatives spur more attempts to control what students read.
The Texas ACLU has investigated challenges in the state’s 1,260 school districts for eight years. In 2003-04, 88 districts faced challenges to 151 books, an increase from the 134 challenges from 71 school districts in 2002-03.
Of the books challenged in 2003-04 in Texas, 62 were banned and 33 were restricted for use by only some students. More than 70 percent of the book challenges were brought on the grounds of profane language or sexual content. No one book stood out as being “most challenged,” but in recent years the Harry Potter series has surpassed other books in the number of challenges.
The Washington State University Access Northwest project found 34 challenges in 22 districts in that state from 2002 through 2004. Sex, profanity and religion were the most common reasons for the challenges. Of the 296 districts in Washington, only 63 percent responded to the project’s inquiry.
Each year during the last week of September, the American Library Association observes Banned Books Week. Recognized since 1982, the event aims to remind Americans not to take their First Amendment rights for granted and encourages them to read a book that has been banned.
Selecting a banned book is rather easy because many American classics have been banned somewhere. The ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom compiled the “Most Challenged Books of 1990-2000,” which contains many popular favorites, such as “Of Mice and Men,” “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” and “Where’s Waldo?”
Robert Cormier’s “The Chocolate War,” a story about a teenager who incurs the wrath of an entire school for standing up for his beliefs, topped the association’s list of most challenged books of 2004. No Harry Potter book was among the top 10, but author J.K. Rowling was listed as the second-most challenged author in 2003.
The ALA’s information is far from complete because it receives only voluntary submissions of challenges from local school librarians. Last year, there was about a 30 percent increase from 2003 in challenges reported.
“Most of the challenges are made by parents and concern offensive language as it relates to children,” said Beverly Becker, associate director of the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom in Chicago.
According to the voluntary submissions the ALA receives, topics that are “anti-Christian” in nature, such as witchcraft and Satanism, are the second-most challenged. Becker said she thinks that only one in four or five challenges is actually reported to the association, but she thinks that most challenges fail and that the books remain on shelves.
“The best predictors of challenges are from organized parents’ groups across the country that are looking at content of indecency or a challenge to their world views,” said Paul McMasters, ombudsman for the Freedom Forum’s First Amendment Center in Washington, D.C. “These groups move laterally, bringing their challenges directly to the school board.”
McMasters said some of these groups include school board members who can be influential in deciding which books to challenge.
Joan Bertin, executive director for the National Coalition Against Censorship, said challenges are difficult to quantify. Most happen at local levels, and many might not follow official processes. Schools might avoid some books even without a challenge. Local boards with certain agendas can influence a book’s placement, and a challenge in one district can produce a chilling effect that might keep others from using it.
“I’ve seen a dramatic increase since the 2004 election,” Bertin said. “Those who identify with family values feel emboldened.”
Although some areas have local organizations, such as Parents Against Bad Books in Schools in Fairfax, Va., Bertin said most organizing is done by groups of parents making and circulating lists. Movements that gain traction, she said, generally are motivated by religious beliefs.
Bertin said censorship was more accepted in the early and mid-1960s, but restraints on adult reading eased in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Restrictions on books for children, however, have always been a battleground. “Harm” to children is difficult to define, she said, and the courts haven’t always been willing to give a definition.
Occasionally there are state-level movements. Legislators in Alabama this year introduced a bill that would have banned books that, “sanction, recognize, foster or promote a lifestyle or actions prohibited by the sodomy and sexual misconduct laws of the state.” The bill received little support and died in committee.
Despite the rising number of book challenges, the ALA thinks most books survive protest to remain on shelves and in the curriculum. Most schools also have back-up or replacement books that can be substituted for challenged works.