On the same day PEN America released their powerful report on the state of book bans in US schools, Representative Jamie Raskin (D-Maryland), Chairman of the Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, held a meeting on book bans and censorship in schools across America. Among the guests speaking to the subcommittee were high schoolers Christina Ellis and Olivia Pituch, both from York Central High School (PA) and Shreyta Mehta, from Richland, Washington; author and Civil Rights activist Ruby Bridges; Samantha Hull, a librarian from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania; Jessica Burg, a teacher from Loudon County, Virginia; Bucks County, Pennsylvania, parent Mindy Freeman; and finally, Jonathan W. Pidluzny, Vice President of Academic Affairs, American Council of Trustees and Alumni.
The three-hour long event invited speakers to address the committee for five minutes each. The bulk of discussion focused on the types of books being banned in schools, with Representative Raskin highlighting an array of books by authors of color and noting that 40% of the books being challenged now had protagonists of color. He addressed the need to hear these stories and for their belonging in schools across the country; though he did not specifically address three of the most challenged books — Lawn Boy, All Boys Aren’t Blue, and Gender Queer — those books made their way through the testimony.
“The truth is that rarely do children of color or immigrants see themselves in these textbooks we are forced to use. I write because I want them to understand the contributions their ancestors have made to our great country, whether that contribution was made as slaves or volunteers,” said Bridges in her testimony. “My books are written to inspire a new generation to contribute to building this great country for indeed there is much work to be done. If we are going to have a conversation about banning books, then I say that conversation is long overdue. Let’s have it, but it must include ALL books. If we are to ban books from being too truthful, then surely, we must ban those books that distort or omit the truth.”
High schooler Mehta addressed the committee–and all of the adults tuning in–about how it’s their responsibility to stand up for students’ rights.
“By not acting strongly against censorship and outspokenly defending students’ intellectual freedom we are proving that we haven’t learned from our country’s past mistakes when it came to moral panic, exclusion, and discrimination.” She explained. “One parent’s opinion on what is the appropriate book for their child shouldn’t impede on a different parent’s. A loud minority can’t be responsible for the cheapening of a young Americans’ First Amendment rights.”
Though the bulk of the conversation centered on book bans, the testimony from Pidluzny focused on what he believes is a far bigger and more insidious censorship right now: the inability for right-wing speakers to talk on college and university campuses without pushback from students and administrators. He mentioned groups on college campuses reporting on professors and students who offer “alternative thoughts,” as well as providing rewards for turning in members of the campus community choosing to listen or watch right-wing news and podcasts. Students or faculty who tune in to Ben Shapiro face the “real” challenges.
“There is no epidemic of censorship, book banning, or viewpoint discrimination in K-12 education today. Parents, school board members, and state legislators are simply making good faith efforts to align public school curricula with the suitability concerns and priorities of the constituents served by local schools,” he said. “This contrasts sharply with what is occurring in higher education, where self censorship is endemic, viewpoint discrimination is the norm, and students and faculty are routinely targeted for investigation, including by school-sponsored bias response teams, for the political content of their speech.”
While there is much to be said about needing to discuss the fact free speech does not mean freedom from consequences of that speech, the inclusion of Pidluzny’s testimony sidetracked the conversation from its focus on book bans and censorship happening in schools and public libraries across the country. It instead gave conservatives an opportunity to claim their freedom and liberty is being squandered, and that they are the true victims of censorship right now–not the minors who are actually having books removed from their educational institutions or the educators who are having their careers ended because of gag orders and the “critical race theory” boogeyman.
South Carolina Representative Nancy Mace (R) further derailed the discussion of book bans by not only agreeing with and bolstering Pidluzny’s commentary, but also by suggested that censorship on social media is far more damaging to free speech than what is happening in K-12 schools. She noted that several individuals have had their Twitter accounts shut down, “while the Kremlin continues to tweet.” She believes the real enemy to free speech are privately owned and operated social media companies.
The bulk of the conversation emphasized the need for these books to remain on shelves and for people to continue advocating for free speech and the rights for students to access the material they wish to access. As Berg said in response to a question from Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), “Our students are always at the center of what we do. That’s why we got into this profession because we care about the students. And it is demoralizing. We right now have a shortage of teachers in this nation and it’s only going to get worse and that is going to do damage to the education system as a whole. That’s what these book bans, these challenges, this rhetoric, that’s what it’s doing. It’s destroying education.”
No action was taken by the subcommittee following the meeting, nor are there any plans to address the topic to the fuller committee or House at large as of writing. The full testimony from each of the witnesses can be viewed in full here and the entire meeting can be viewed in full below. Take the opportunity to hear from Bridges, educational leaders like Berg and Hull, as well as the powerful testimony delivered by the parent of a trans student and three high school students living through these book challenges first hand: