If you’ve been paying attention to local and national news, you’ve probably noticed a notable uptick in censorship and book banning. This has been a coordinated effort at the school district, library, community, and state level primarily targeting LGBTQ+ books and books by BIPOC authors. It’s a deeply concerning trend, especially as we’re seeing these bans instigated by politicians and local legislators, rather than from individual parents of students, as has largely been the case for book challenges in the past. If you’re an advocate for free speech and open access to information and books of all kinds, then now is the time to speak out and contact your legislators and local school board. Your voice is especially needed if you live in an area where book bans are being actively considered or have recently passed. In this guide, I’ll provide the information you need to research the issue in your area and tips for how to contact your legislators about book bans. I also hope to explain why your voice is important for fighting censorship.
PEN America, an organization dedicated to human rights and freedom of expression in literature, recently published an in-depth report on the rise in book bans. They found that, between July 2021 and March 2022, 86 school districts across 26 states banned titles, impacting over 2 million students. Of the over 1,100 books singled out in these bans, 41% star BIPOC characters, 22% directly address race or racism, and 33% include LGBTQ+ themes or characters. At Book Riot, we’ve been working hard to keep readers up-to-date on censorship news and concerning trends for libraries and schools. But the most impactful way to fight book bans is grassroots advocacy from constituents who live in the area and can speak to why censorship hurts their community.
Why Your Voice Matters
Let’s be real for a moment: Sometimes it feels like your opinion can’t possibly make a difference, especially to lawmakers who fundamentally disagree with you. But the truth is that a required part of lawmakers’ jobs is listening to their constituents’ concerns. After all, without constituents, they wouldn’t have their jobs in the first place! Most legislators have systems of logging and tracking how many constituents contact them about specific issues, usually with a tally of communications for and against certain bills. Even if it feels like your letter or call might be meaningless, it’s being recorded. And while it’s true that your one request might not change a legislator’s opinion overnight, you might be surprised by how much of an impact it makes.
I grew up in Arkansas and Oklahoma, and I voted on the opposite side of most issues in those very red states. Although I always showed up for elections, I never felt like my voice could make much of a difference. As a liberal, queer woman, I often figured my legislators didn’t even want me in their state, much less cared about my opinions. But I later moved to Washington, D.C., to study public policy and worked professionally in grassroots advocacy for six years. In that time, I learned that constituent communication is hugely important to shaping policy, even if it doesn’t always look that way from the outside. In annual surveys from the Congressional Management Foundation, over 90% of Capitol Hill staffers report that their bosses are swayed by constituent advocacy. Anecdotally, I’ve seen in person how differently a legislator reacts to a request from a constituent as compared to meetings with lobbyists, researchers, and public policy professionals. When someone from the community a lawmaker represents can tell them firsthand how an issue impacts their district, it can make a world of difference.
And that’s primarily at the national level, where members of Congress can receive hundreds of thousands of constituent communications each year! Most book banning is currently taking place at the state, city, or local level. Your local legislators are receiving far fewer grassroots messages, and statistically, your voice can make an even bigger difference on these issues. Even if it feels hopeless, I can’t emphasize enough how much your advocacy could impact censorship in your area. And if you want to really make a change, you can start a tiny grassroots movement simply by encouraging like-minded local friends and neighbors to join you in reaching out to their legislators as well.
How to Learn About Book Bans in Your Area
The first step to taking action against book bans and censorship is finding out what legislation or school district directives are taking place. As there’s not really a centralized place for people across the country to track state and local bills, this can be tricky. But paying attention to local news, staying engaged with your local library or school district, or a simple Google search can help you find out what’s happening in your area.
If you aren’t already aware of book bans in your town or state, try Googling [your state or city] + “book ban” and related keywords to see if any recent news comes up. See what reporting from this year you can find, and specifically, look for any bill numbers of current legislation, recently passed laws, or decisions by library or school boards. The important thing to identify here is what action is being taken and who the deciding party is.
Is there a bill currently being considered in your state legislature? If you can find a bill number, that is incredibly helpful for deciding who to contact and what to say. Bills that are listed as “HB ###” are usually in your state’s House of Representatives, while bills with a number that starts with “SB” are generally in your state’s Senate. Once you have that bill number, you can Google it (along with your state’s name) to find more information on where it is in the legislative process, which will also help you determine who to address with your opinion on the bill. Read through a summary of the bill to find out what it would do. This will help you craft your message to your legislator.
It may be harder to find specific information about a decision at a school board or library board. But if that’s where the action is happening, it’s a lot simpler to figure out the legislative process impacting the bill. Simply contact whatever email or phone number that body has available for community input.
If you aren’t able to find any information about book bans in your area, that doesn’t mean you can’t do anything! With coordinated attacks against freedom of speech happening across the country, it’s quite possible that discussions are already occurring in your area, even if no bill has been introduced. You can still contact your local legislators to say you’ve seen what’s been happening in communities like yours, and you stand against censorship and book bans in your libraries and schools. Ask them to stand with you if the issue arises in their work.
Deciding Who to Contact
Now that you know where the book ban is occurring, it’s time to figure out who to contact with your opinion. As mentioned above, if the censorship is taking place at a school board or library board, you can contact that body directly, usually through a phone number or email listed on their website. If they have regular meetings open to the public, as they should, you can attend one and raise your concern with book bans when they open the floor for questions or comments.
Similarly, if you’re looking to fight back against a city council book ban, you can contact your city councilor directly. Most city councils have a way to look up your councilor with your address, and their contact information should be made available to constituents.
If you’re specifically looking to fight book ban legislation in your state, you’ll first need to do your research on where the legislation is in the process. For a bill that has been introduced (but not yet passed) in the House, contact your local representative. If it’s introduced in the Senate, contact your state senator. Tell them to vote against the bill, and be sure to include the bill number. In many cases, a bill may have already passed one legislative body but not the other, so you’ll want to contact the group actively considering the bill.
If the bill has already been passed by both the state House and Senate and is not yet signed into law by the governor, contact the governor’s office and ask them not to sign the bill. If it’s already been signed into law, you can contact your governor, state representative, and state senator and ask them to repeal the law. This can be an uphill battle, but it’s still worth your time voicing your opinion on the matter. Even if it doesn’t lead to a repeal, it can be an indicator to legislators of opposition to future bills that would further restrict access to books.
Ways to Contact Your Legislators About Book Bans
There are many ways constituents can communicate with their legislators about issues that matter to them. All have some level of impact, although some may be more effective than others. Here are a few ways you can consider taking action against book bans.
- Call your legislator: This is a quick and easy way to contact your lawmaker, and their phone number for constituent concerns should be open and publicly available. When you call, you’ll likely talk to a staffer who is accustomed to this kind of interaction. State your name, be sure to say that you are a constituent, and briefly tell them your stance on the issue and how you hope the legislator will vote.
- Write a letter/send an email: Most legislators have some kind of contact box for digital communications. Take a moment to write out your thoughts on the matter and ask them to oppose book bans. A physical, mailed letter or postcard may have slightly more impact on your lawmaker, as it shows the problem is important enough for you to take the extra step to mail it. You’ll likely receive a written response from the legislator, often thanking you for your input or explaining their stance on the issue.
- Set up a meeting: Lawmakers and their staff regularly take meetings with constituents to discuss issues important to their district. You can usually find a way to request a meeting on the legislator’s website. This face-to-face interaction tends to make the biggest impact of all grassroots actions, but it can also be time-consuming and requires more preparation. But if you’re someone who is directly impacted by book bans (like a teacher, librarian, or parent of a student whose school has banned books), then this can make a huge difference. Personal stories and connections with lawmakers are far more likely to leave an impression, and when the topic comes up again in their work, your interaction could be what guides their decision.
- Attend a town hall: Town halls are great opportunities to get face time with your legislators and raise important issues in a public forum. If you can get a group of friends and family from your community to back you up, even better.
What to Say
So you’ve figured out the issue in your community and which decision makers to contact. Now, what do you say?
First off, it’s important to emphasize that you’re someone who lives in that community and therefore should have say in issues affecting it. Establishing your personal connection to the issue is incredibly helpful. Are you a parent of a student in the district? Are you a teacher or librarian who provides access to books? Are you an avid reader who believes in the power books have to learn about the world around you? All of this and more can help you make a personal appeal that leaves a bigger impression with a lawmaker. And even if you don’t have a direct connection to schools or libraries, your tax dollars pay for them, and you have a right to weigh in on how their censorship impacts your neighborhood.
Next, bring up the specific bill or issue at hand and what you hope the decision maker will do about it. You can say something like, “I know that Arkansas SB 1234 is currently being considered in the Senate, and as someone who supports freedom of speech and access to information, I hope that you’ll vote against book bans and censorship in our state.”
A great way to make sure your request sticks with the lawmakers is to tell a personal story or explain the negative impact it would have on your community. Talk about how books like the frequently challenged The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison helped you better understand the world around you and become a more thoughtful reader. Share how important it is to you that your children are able to read about all kinds of people and experiences in the books they find at a library. Explain how proposed legislation creates a slippery slope for your community in terms of free speech and banning opinions a small group of neighbors disagree with.
Finally, reinforce your ask by sharing again what you hope the decision maker will do: vote against a bill, stand against any future legislation, repeal a current law, change school board rules that ban books, etc. Make sure that when your call, letter, or meeting ends, the target knows what you’re asking them to do.
Avoid personally attacking anyone, cursing, telling a politician that you voted against them, or generally disparaging the decision maker. That’s the quickest way to get your message ignored. No matter how much you disagree with someone, you can most effectively advocate for your position by being polite and professional, and by sticking to the issue you’re there to discuss. You can be passionate and firm about your opposition to book bans without crossing any lines.
You can find a variety of helpful tools and tips for fighting book bans in our Anti-Censorship Tool Kit as well as at Unite Against Book Bans, including suggested talking points and steps for grassroots organizing. It’s most important that you explain your concerns in your own words and share your personal connection to the community it impacts, but here are a few ideas for what you might include:
- Freedom of speech is a constitutionally protected right, and book banning is a threat to our democracy.
- Books shouldn’t be limited because a small number of people disagree with them. We must trust individuals and parents to make decisions about the books they and their children read.
- Children have the right to see themselves and their families reflected in the books they read.
- Books are a tool for learning more about the world and our history. Banning books is an attempt to limit our ability to learn about experiences outside of our own.
- According to the American Library Association, 71% of Americans oppose efforts to ban books from libraries.
- Individuals should not be able to dictate what I or my children can and can’t read. Let people make their own decisions about books.
Other Ways to Make a Difference
Once you’ve contacted local lawmakers about your opposition to book bans, there are other ways you can expand your impact.
- Recruit friends and family to join you: You can start a local grassroots movement by getting your personal network of book lovers to advocate with you. Share what you learned about book bans in your area and who you contacted to speak out against it. Give them the tools and encouragement to do the same, and ask them to help spread the word.
- Write an op-ed for your local paper: Spread awareness of harmful book bans and censorship in your community by writing an op-ed and submitting it to your newspaper. There are lots of tips online for writing effective advocacy op-eds, like this guide from The Op-Ed Project. My advice is to keep it fairly brief, but explain how harmful the issue can be for you and your neighbors, as well as what readers can do to support access to books.
- Join your local school or library board: This may be a time consuming option, but it’s an important way to stay abreast of conversations around book bans, censorship, and other important issues. You can have a say in future considerations and protect access to all kinds of books by running for your local school board or library board. You can learn more about running for a library board here.
- Join anti-censorship groups: Sign up for our Literary Activism newsletter and the Unite Against Book Bans campaign to get breaking news about censorship and new ideas for how to help.
We hope this article has inspired you to speak out against book bans and fight for access to books in your community! You can find more resources on the American Library Association’s Fight Censorship page.