A Censorship Language Primer: Book Censorship News, June 30, 2023

Kelly Jensen


Kelly is a former librarian and a long-time blogger at STACKED. She's the editor/author of (DON'T) CALL ME CRAZY: 33 VOICES START THE CONVERSATION ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH and the editor/author of HERE WE ARE: FEMINISM FOR THE REAL WORLD. Her next book, BODY TALK, will publish in Fall 2020. Follow her on Instagram @heykellyjensen.

It has been years since talking about the meanings behind words used to discuss book bans and censorship. Although we might all think we’re using the words the same way, in many cases, the nuance and gravity of language can be lost when the wrong word is used. It might sound nitpicky, but it’s not. Clarity around language and meaning around book bans is important. To communicate the true extent of what is happening and on how many different levels, a shared understanding of words and their meanings is crucial.

This week, for example, an author talked on Twitter about how his book was being “soft censored” because a school board decided to pull the book from shelves before it could raise a concern from community members. Though it conveys the same thing, this is not actually what soft censorship is. This is textbook censorship, no softness about it.

Here’s a short introduction to the nuances of language around book bans, censorship, and more.


This is used as both an umbrella term and one that is employed with specificity. We talk about censorship broadly as the intentional act of information suppression; this information can be a whole book, passages from a book, images from a book, and so forth. Materials are being withheld or changed when they’re made available to other people.

More specifically, censorship means that suppression is coming from a government body, a private institution, or other group with authority. These authorities are intentionally suppressing or removing information from those who do not have the same level of power or authority that they do.

Censorship is done knowingly. It is purposeful. There is a reason behind why someone wants the material changed, eradicated, or removed.

A school board, school administrator, city manager, mayor, president, librarian, politician, police force member, and others in roles which have some presumed level of authority may all engage in censorship. A school board that decides to not have a book on shelf because they think it might cause concern among some community members engages in censorship. A librarian who chooses to pull a book off shelf because they do not believe it should be accessible to anyone engages in censorship. A member of city council or the local police force demanding the removal of books is engaging in censorship.

Catholic Vote — via their “Hide the Pride” campaign — engages in censorship. Moms for Liberty, via their BookLooks database, provokes censorship (especially as they do not believe that meeting the legal definition of obscenity).

Soft/Quiet/Self Censorship

Defined with ample examples over here, this form of censorship happens not as a means of exerting authority or power. It happens instead at the ground level with those who have the power to make choices about access and availability of material. While educators or librarians may have real or perceived authority and power over many in their communities or classrooms, the “quiet”/”self”/”soft” part of this type of censorship refers to the fact that books that may fit the collection never get the chance to be there at all because the person in the position to make such choices either chooses not to include it. That choice comes not from wanting to wield their power but instead to protect themselves or others from facing the consequences of other people’s power.

A librarian may not purchase Gender Queer for their collection, for example, despite being on a best books for teens list. This is not because they cannot afford it, and it is not because the book does not fit their collection development standards. Their decision isn’t about not wanting young people to access the book. In fact, they might believe the book is a great fit for their students. But they choose not to buy the book for the collection because it’s among the most banned in America and they worry that if someone found out the book was in the collection, they would become a victim of online targeted hate by pro-censorship groups and/or have to defend their decision in ways that they are not prepared to do.

Often, soft/self/quiet censorship is about self-preservation. Librarians and educators do not make much money, and they’ve become punching bags in so many social and political circles, especially in the last half decade. They need to pay their bills and keep their health insurance. While they might defend the right to read to their core, if it comes down to choosing between potentially getting fired for having Gender Queer and being able to afford rent, the choice is sometimes not really a choice at all.

Self/soft/quiet censorship happens on the other end, too: books may “go missing” from shelves or be weeded as a means of protection.

Another layer to soft/quiet/self censorship is the slate of bills impacting teachers and librarians across the country. Because of how unclear much of this legislation is — the vagueness is a feature, not a bug — the onus of responsibility for what is in a collection falls on those with the least power in an institution like the teacher or librarian. This makes self/quiet/soft censorship flourish. If you’re in the position of buying the LGBTQ+ book but have no clear guidance on what might get you fired or sued, you’re in an impossible situation. Self-censorship is the safest route and that’s by no fault of the librarian or teacher. That’s the fault and rationale of the legislators ramming these bills through.

Soft/quiet/self censorship is the chilling effect in action.

In the example above, where an author called a school board deciding to remove a book soft censorship, the reason it is not is power. The school board has power and purposefully made a decision to withhold information in order to keep it out of the hands of people. Soft censorship would be the librarian never purchasing the book for fear of pushback from the board or community. (Note: examples like this one are why more boards want to have control over the library collections, as it gives them power to make every decision, wield that power, then claim self/quiet censorship as their rationale, as it is seen as a “lesser” form of censorship).

Often soft/quiet/self censorship has no paper trail. It is nearly impossible to track.

Book Challenge/Complaint

These are formal or informal complaints by someone about a book perceived to be in a library or classroom collection. An informal complaint might happen in passing — a patron saying that the Pride display is inappropriate but not doing anything else about it — or it can happen formally through a form provided to patrons for that very purpose. A book challenge form protects the First Amendment Rights of all, which is why having policies and procedures in place for them is crucial.

The difference between a challenge/complaint and a ban is what happens when the complaint is filed. Anyone has the right to a book complaint or challenge; whether or not it goes through the formal process is determined by the library’s policy on whether non-community members can have input in an institution to which they have no affiliation or financial ties.

Book Restriction

Book restrictions happen when the book is available on shelf, but it cannot be accessed without permission. In some Florida schools, for example, books have not been removed from library shelves but in order to use them, students need parental permission. This is not popular.

Book restrictions can be on a title-by-title basis — so you can’t borrow, say, an Ellen Hopkins book without mommy or daddy saying you can (but you can go sign your life away to the military recruiters at lunchtime without it!). It can also happen on an age basis, such that if you’re in middle school, you cannot borrow any books from the high school library (so hopefully you don’t want to borrow a work of classic literature). It can also happen in a blanketed way, as the Florida examples show.

Book restrictions are censorship, but they are not book bans. They are indeed a “clever” way to get around enacting book bans.

Book Ban

A book ban is when a book is removed from the shelf. Period.

Too many argue that a book is not banned if it’s removed for review following a complaint. This is not true. If the book is not on the shelf, it is inaccessible, and when it is inaccessible, it’s been banned from those who may wish to use it. A complaint or challenge does not give the right of removal unless the book has gone through the formal reconsideration process and has been officially deemed unacceptable for the collection.

Yes, moving the books behind a desk or to a secret room only accessible via asking a librarian is a book ban. This may be called “book removals,” but it is a book ban.

Choosing not to purchase material because of budget constraints, not filling a need in the community, or information contained within the material is patently biased, false, misleading, or dangerous is not a book ban. Libraries offer information; were they to purchase, say, subscriptions to right-wing “news” like the Epoch Times, they would not be doing their job. They should, budget willing, provide actual news that might lean right, such as The Wall Street Journal.

Book bans are censorship, and they may be temporary or permanent.

Of note: there is a difference between a book ban and a curriculum update. It’s a popular argument from the right that “leftists” are banning books like To Kill a Mockingbird. This is false; changes in curriculum are part of keeping a curriculum up to date, and even if TKAM is no longer used as a primary text, it is not removed from shelves or made unavailable to students.


Last, let’s throw in the term fascism, since it’s relevant and pertinent when talking about book bans right now. Fascism is a political movement of authoritarianism. One figure or set of figures gets to determine what is and is not acceptable, and anything outside of the sphere of okay is deemed dangerous and worth oppressing. As we ride the waves of fascism in America, it is crucial to understand that the now 3-years-deep “war” over “parental rights” and “book curation” in this country is little more than an attempt of the far-right to determine what books and information people are allowed access to.

Censorship is fascism in action.

One word not included above but worth an honorable mention here is reshelving. What “reshelving” means depends entirely on the context. If it’s, say, in the context of hundreds of books being pulled from shelves to be moved from the teen section to the adult section because of a few loudmouth citizens, then that’s a form of censorship.

If it’s removing all of the comics from the teen section and putting them into the adult section because of some complaints? That’s a form of censorship.

These are not book bans, per se. But they are perfect examples of censorship since they suppress access to information. If the books disappear completely or are removed from shelves for weeks as the library decides where to put them, then those are book bans.

But if it’s moving all of the teen comics and putting them into the adult section because the library is out of space and needs to make some, and thus, all graphic novels are just going to be shelved together, then that’s making use of the space you have, so long as that’s the real reasoning behind it.

Book Censorship News: June 30, 2023

Note: I did not include links to news updated on legislation that takes effect July 1, but know that several states, including Indiana and Iowa, will now be subject to restrictive, draconian new laws about what can or cannot be in a library. We will see a greater rise in books being removed, though whether or not we read a story about it remains to be seen. When there is legal recourse, why would individuals alert the media? We’re entering a major wave of censorship that will never be reported and thus, never recorded for history.

  • The biggest story this week is that Katy Independent School District (TX), which was taken over by right-wing “activists,” is now halting ALL BOOK PURCHASES, directing any pending ones to storage, in order to “review the books.” This is censorship, and it is a book ban.
  • This story is a must-read because it has everything: a pastor claiming there are dangerous books in the school library, his wife who is a district administrator in a different public school district, removal of kids from “government schools,” Just a perfect story to encapsulate the kinds of people getting their voices heard right now in student education. No books have been removed yet from the Clyde-Savannah (NY) district.
  • One of the only goodish stories this week is that after Ferndale Public Library (MI) was hit by “Hide the Pride,” they repurchased tons of new LGBTQ+ books.
  • Wantagh High School (NY) is formally reviewing Fun Home to determine whether or not it will remain in the library.
  • West Bend School District (WI) is reviewing the appropriateness of The 57 Bus this week.
  • “A Leon County [FL] mother says her child was harmed after reading a page of a children’s book from a school library explaining that tennis legend Billie Jean King is gay.” This is not in any world rational. How was your child harmed by learning a fact? That only comes from your parenting.
  • It’s never about banning books, but in this case, it is about ensuring students don’t get to experience any stories or insights from people who aren’t cishet Christian right-wing fundamentalists. This isn’t a new story but more insight into the current battle in Montgomery County, Maryland, over opting out of school curriculum where there might be a queer book included.
  • This is another article on the Montgomery County situation, and I hope it’s clear how bad faith all of this is: “Feyssa said she’s the parent of two MCPS students, one in middle school and one in elementary. “They’re both boys. I want them to grow up as boys,” she said. “Just let our kids grow as they are.” Your kids are not going to grow up any way other than the way they’re going to grow up, no matter what you do or don’t lie to them about.
  • Gale-Ettrick-Trempealeau School District (WI) put Queer Ducks back on middle school library shelves after the vote to remove it was deemed against policy, but its status is not yet finally determined. This is a nonfiction book about queerness in animals. A book with science and facts. The challenge itself proves the point of the book.
  • I am so tired of folks thinking the response to book bans is to then challenge the Bible. I get that it feels like a gotcha but an eye for an eye makes the world blind, not more accepting. This is in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
  • “The Town Council has rejected a Republican nominee to serve on the Board of Directors of the Welles-Turner Memorial Library [CT] due to her previous opposition to certain books in school libraries in town.” As should be the course of action. If you don’t believe in access to all for all, you don’t deserve a role in a position that requires that.
  • Parents Against Bad Books are petitioning for the removal of several books and displays at Idaho Falls Public Library (ID). Great group name.
  • Old Lyme-Phoebe Griffin Noyes Library (CT) is currently reviewing two sex ed books for teens to determine whether or not they get to stay in the collection. They’re the usual right-wing crisis titles: Let’s Talk About It: The Teen’s Guide to Sex, Relationships, and Being a Human and You Know, Sex: Bodies, Gender, Puberty, And Other Things. Imagine thinking that sexual health information is titillating.
  • “Elizabethtown Area School District’s [PA] school board voted unanimously Tuesday to advance revisions to its library materials policy — including a new rating system to identify mature content in books — which got its first official reading at the meeting.” This is a book ban policy.
  • 87 books are being looked at more closely in Pinellas County Schools (FL) to determine whether or not they fit the new laws regarding material available in schools. The decisions need to be made by July 1…so you know it’s being done per policy and professional judgment. [Paywalled article, so only so much information is available].
  • Flamer by Mike Curato, Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison, It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health by Robie Harris, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews, and The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison are all being challenged in Guilford Schools (CT). Challenger? A former, failed candidate for the school board.
  • Stamped‘s fate in Ashley High School (NC) will be determined next month. This all started over a parental complaint over its use in an AP Language class.
  • “There is now a moratorium on the purchase of explicit books, about 30 books have been pulled from the shelves and put under restricted access and the explicit book review committee has been formed.” This is the Brandywine School District in Michigan. Dozens of books banned and a whole new “explicit books” purchase policy has been rammed in. What do those words even mean?
  • Speaking of the Brandywine meeting, it happened on a Friday night, with only 18 hours’ notice for folks.
  • Drama over who gets to sit on the book ban challenge committee in League City, Texas, for their public library. The ultimate goal is deciding whether to chuck the kids’ books or reshelve them into the adult section. The obsession over sex here is something.
  • In Forsythe County, Georgia, Ellen Hopkins’ Tilt and Perfect, Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, and E.R. Frank’s Dime will remain on library shelves. However, to borrow them, students need parental permission. So…they’re still restricted.
  • 5 books will remain on shelves in Williamson County Schools (TN).
  • Always look for the person saying school should be about reading, writing, and arithmetic and nothing else. Those are the book banners, despite the fact they claim schools are for reading (Wyoming).
  • “The Highland Park ISD [TX] board of trustees June 20 approved a policy change allowing parents or adult students to challenge optional materials, like library books. Beginning in the 2023-2024 school year, parents will also be notified by email when their student checks out a library book. The district already had a challenge process in place for required instructional materials.” The use of the school’s library is going to absolutely plummet now that students have ZERO privacy in borrowing anything.
  • They don’t even give good lines. It’s never about book banning but about making sure kids don’t have access to age-appropriate material. And yet, they want to have the books removed. So it’s still censorship, period. Do you prefer being called censors? (Lebanon, Oregon).
  • A 5th grade teacher in Marietta, Georgia, read an age-appropriate book about gender identity aloud to her students and now her job is in jeopardy.
  • This week, Bonita Unified School District (CA) will determine whether or not to ban The Bluest Eye. Update: they will keep the book.
  • While the Clinton Township police don’t plan on engaging in the book banning demands of a small “we don’t coparent with the government, but daddy police, can you tell the schools to get rid of the books” group, they are not denying that they may get involved as the Chippewa Valley school district completes their review of challenged books (MI).
  • Paywalled, but the Saline County judge (AR) believes he has a right in determining whether or not the public library can have certain books on shelf.
  • Let’s Talk About It will remain in the teen area — where it belongs — at the Ketchikan Public Library (AK).
  • “Some neighbors claim the sexually explicit nature of the books is inappropriate for young children. People are split on Councilman Tom Audette’s motion to move LGBTQ+ books from the general area of the library to another part of the library away from children. ‘It’s just a common sense and decency issue to simply relocate these books into an adult area where they’re still available for check-out for those parents that want to expose their children to this kind of material,’ said Denise Park.” This is at the York County Public Library in South Carolina. Common sense to just eliminate gay people from the shelves, huh? The utter lack of respect for children from the so-called protectors of children.
  • I am paywalled, but Prairie Rose Schools in Manitoba, Canada, rejected challenges to two LGBTQ+ themed books. The fascism and right-wing fanaticism in the U.S. has been bleeding over the border into Manitoba, especially.
  • Three books are being challenged at Caro Public Library (MI) and given how large the crowds have been here, the meeting was preemptively moved to a bigger facility.
  • Yet another sociology textbook has been rejected by the Bernards Township School Board (NJ). Among the reasons: “Csipak, who also did not approve the book, listed each issue she had with the book including mentions of people wanting to be called ‘child-free’ instead of ‘childless.’ She said the book failed to mention ‘the frequent regret for those that chose not to have children is completely missed.'”
  • Honestly can’t blame a library director for choosing to resign when they’re dealing with book crisis actors day in and out (AL).
  • In Christian County, Missouri, two board members of the library are up for reappointment, but they won’t just automatically be reappointed as has usually been the case. Why? Because there are 21 other people who want to have control over the library.
  • And in St. Joseph, Missouri, reappointment of a board member was halted when a local pastor decided to have his followers attack that board member online. Why? Because he believes all people have rights, not just right-wing bigots.
  • Oak Park Public Library (IL) is declaring itself a book sanctuary.
  • Dayton Metro Library in Ohio is doing the same.
  • I am paywalled, but the board of Temecula Schools (CA) — where, remember, they don’t want students to know about the existence of Harvey Milk — is now going to have a new “explicit books” policy.
  • Mansfield Independent School District (TX) — recall they were a board made up of individuals backed by Patriot Mobile, a right-wing cell phone company — just “watered down” their exclusionary book policy. It’s…still not great! And a teacher just quit because of it.
  • I suspect there is some kind of legislation brewing in Vermont against book bans, as the Lieutenant governor there is going on a state-wide tour to do read-alouds of banned books.
  • Looks like Rancho Peñasquitos Library (CA) got hit by “Hide the Pride.”
  • A deep dive into how furor over queer books in Wayne Township High School (NJ) has escalated — and how it began, of course, with the pandemic, mask mandates, and more. Nothing new here for anyone who has paid attention, but it’s a nice solid piece.
  • The woman in St. Charles, Missouri offended by the way a queer librarian dressed is a straight-up, nasty bully.