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How Book Bans Might Impact Museums: A Q&A with PEN America’s Jonathan Friedman

Category: Alliance Blog
Close up of open books on table.
Starting in 2021, a long-brewing movement to restrict the books available in schools and libraries has exploded into school boards and statehouses. Here's why this political trend might affect museums too.

This series of Q&As by the author are conducted as independent work and not part of his professional activities.

If you follow the news, you’ve likely seen a surge in headlines about censorship and book-banning, with libraries and schools under protest, and teachers and librarians facing a barrage of negative attention and even losing their jobs. Where is this trend coming from, how has it progressed, and could it also threaten museums and cultural spaces? To find out, I reached out to Jonathan Friedman, the Sy Sims Managing Director of U.S. Free Expression Programs at PEN America. The following is an excerpt from our conversation.

Adam Rozan: Can you introduce yourself and share what you do?

Jonathan Friedman: First, let’s talk about PEN America. We are a one-hundred-year-old nonpartisan, nonprofit advocacy organization at the intersection of literature and human rights. We celebrate creative expression and defend the civil liberties that make it possible in the US and worldwide. I oversee our domestic work on free expression across the cultural, literary, artistic and educational arenas. In education, our program focuses on advocating for the freedom to read, learn, and think in K-12 schools and higher education. That includes education programs, research, and advocacy, especially against new state laws to censor classroom teaching and the rise of concerted efforts to ban books.

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AR: That’s a big task. Can you share more about the conversation that’s happening now?

JF: The conversation nationally focuses on students’ access to books and the effort to ban books from school districts and libraries. In the past three years, this has really been a conversation about the appropriate role of state government in setting curricula and local parents in determining what children should be able to learn in schools.

A lot has been driven mainly by a campaign to create a moral panic about public education that could be exploited for potential political gain and sow distrust in educators and even knowledge and expertise. Not everyone who has advocated for banning books is necessarily connected to this campaign, but you do see the clear influence of organized groups and politicians, particularly as this has transitioned from primarily being a fight contested at local school boards to a fight contested in statehouses. As this has continued, more and more citizens have started raising their voices against it. There are still specific challenges for many educators who fear that a law passed in their state will jeopardize their positions or careers. Fear is playing a huge role in this, as a means of ideological control, of chilling education at large. So, it is still a situation that is being significantly contested, and in 2024, we have continued to see efforts to pass state laws this spring. I expect to see ongoing efforts to embolden censors in the lead-up and following the presidential election.

AR: So we’re clear: What exactly is a banned book?

JF: There is a long history surrounding the topic of banned books, and the issue has flared up in different historical moments. Though there have been for decades steady highly local efforts to prohibit books in schools, this most recent wave, beginning in 2021, marked the beginning of a set of new tactics, and a concerted campaign, in many parts of the country, to control what books in schools all kids and families could read. In our work, we at PEN America define a book ban as “any action taken against a book based on its content and as a result of parent or community challenges, administrative decisions, or in response to direct or threatened action by lawmakers or other governmental officials, that leads to a previously accessible book being either completely removed from availability to students, or where access to a book is restricted or diminished. Diminished access is a form of censorship and has educational implications that extend beyond a title’s removal.”

I think what’s critical to understand as well is that book-banning does not take one particular form, and with regard to public schools or libraries, it can be enacted by local leaders, such as school board members; but book bans can also be the result of state boards of education, state laws, or even federal government actions, should it come to that. There’s no question we have seen different kinds of book bans in different communities and states for the past three years.

But the national trend is unmistakable, even if it takes different forms.

AR: What’s at stake here?

JF: The movement to ban books often targets topics like LGBTQ identities, race, and sexual assault, leading to self-censorship among educators. In the abstract, there’s nothing wrong with parents wanting to be invested in their kids’ education. In fact, we should all be encouraging that as part of healthy civic society. The challenge comes with what we are seeing now, which is laws and rhetoric that masquerades as serving all parents, but is actually geared to serving the interests of a particular minority of parents. We are seeing in state after state, organized groups of citizens—some but not all, are parents—who clearly aim to control what all students can learn about. This is not about fostering genuine education. It’s about ideological control and suppression. This movement could continue to gain momentum but right now it also faces mounting opposition.

AR: I was surprised to learn that many of the books that are under threat deal with topics like the Holocaust and slavery and even include books that I understood to be classics. 

Can you share some examples of books being banned and what about them is deemed questionable?

JF: The most common reasons for bans are because the book contains so-called sexual content, but this frequently blurs with LGBTQ+ content, and then another subset of books have clearly been targeted for dealing with racism, especially pertaining to American history. The censors’ tools are broad, wide-sweeping, and imprecise. And because they are propelled now increasingly by fear, we see more and more books, all kinds of American classics or contemporary novels, targeted or banned for one reason or another. So, in the fall we saw targeting of books by John Updike, Ayn Rand, and Ernest Hemingway, but also by Judy Blume, John Grisham, and James Patterson. And then also a book by comedian Steve Martin caught my eye a few months ago on one of these ban lists, similar to when we saw a district removing Amanda Gorman’s presidential inauguration poem, The Hill We Climb. It’s a really wide gamut. This layers on top of where this began in 2021 with distinctly targeted efforts against particular titles, that are targeted again and again, and where the books and their authors have been demonized by local groups or by politicians. Frequently banned books include Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer, Juno Dawson’s This Book is Gay, George M. Johnson’s All Boys Aren’t Blue, Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give, and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.

Children’s books about important figures such as Wilma Rudolph and Roberto Clemente have been banned in some cases without people paying close attention, pulled just because they were challenged, or perhaps without someone much noticing, as they were titles present on long lists that someone chose to prohibit. There have been efforts to ban a graphic novel adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank because of the illustrations, including one of nude Greek statues—an illustration the authors chose to include to pair with a part of the diary discussing the female body, and because of Anne’s interest in Ancient Greece. So there’s all sorts of reasons being proffered, but again and again you have to question what the motives really driving this all are, and if people are deliberately choosing to abandon common sense. One district in Florida went so far as to ban the dictionary because it defined the word “sex.” How does that help young people learn?

AR: What’s the current state of legal challenges? If I understand correctly, some bills have been proposed limiting what could or couldn’t be taught and made available in our libraries.

JF: Several bills have been introduced in various states to restrict the dissemination of certain materials in educational settings. There is a wide variety, from efforts to place restrictions on what books can be sold to public schools in Texas, to flat out bans on particular content relating to sex, gender, or LGBTQ+ identities, which we’ve seen in Iowa and Florida. Every year we see a new crop of bills that target schools, universities, libraries, and even museums, particularly when it comes to bills that are trying to alter what can get educators in trouble if they give certain materials to minors. The issue is that we actually already have good rules about this, solid laws that protect educators, so that a librarian could stock a book about sexual assault, or students could study Michelangelo’s nude statue of David. But these are efforts to change those laws that would cast a wide chill, if passed.

But that’s just one kind of bill we have seen—many more directly prohibit certain topics or otherwise seek to curb what teachers do, or make them think twice when it comes to certain topics related most especially to race, sex, and gender. This is creating uncertainty and fear among professionals, leading to self-censorship and limiting the diversity of perspectives and experiences that can be shared in schools.

Overall, even the introduction of so many of these bills, even if they don’t pass, has a chilling effect on freedom of expression and artistic and academic freedom, as it signals a willingness to legislate and restrict cultural discourse in ways that could have far-reaching consequences and could impact a range of our educational institutions.

AR: How does the conversation around censorship and book banning affect museums and cultural organizations?

JF: This year we have seen a bill move forward past the House in West Virginia that would specifically target museums and libraries, in terms of removing traditional exemptions that protect their employees from being criminally charged with distributing harmful content to minors. That bill failed to pass fully before the end of the legislative session. It also echoes developments abroad, for example, in Hungary. There, a law controls the presentation of LGBTQ+ content to minors. At the National Art Museum in Budapest this year, an exhibit had photographs of the LGBTQ+ community. The government determined that those photographs essentially broke the law, and they barred all minors from seeing these pictures.

These were not pictures of an explicitly sexual nature; they were just pictures in an art museum of an LGBTQ+ community, I believe from the Philippines. In the wake of that, the director there was dismissed. Even if parents wanted to opt their kids into seeing the exhibit, under the law, they were forbidden to do so. So again, that law isn’t about true parental choice either. Again, it’s more about suppression and control.

AR: Can you share an example of a law proposed here and the language it uses?

JF: A law from last year that was proposed in North DakotaSB2123—is one example. It would amend a state law about exposing minors to “objectionable materials” in business establishments frequented by minors by deleting the phrase “The above [i.e., business establishments] shall not be construed to include a bona fide school, college, university, museum, public library, or art gallery.” Displaying a nude in a museum is thereby equated with showing a minor an unwrapped pornographic magazine at a newsstand, and is subject to the same legal penalties.

AR: What’s the significance of proposed laws like these for those of us who work in educational settings?

JF: In many states, there are laws prohibiting the dissemination of sexual content to minors, but, as in the example above, these laws typically include exceptions for educational purposes, such as in schools, libraries, and museums. These exceptions have historically allowed educators, librarians, and museum professionals to present materials for educational and cultural purposes without fear of legal repercussions.

However, recent legislative proposals seek to remove these exceptions, leaving professionals in these fields vulnerable to potential legal consequences. This shift is alarming because it could result in self-censorship and restrict the dissemination of necessary educational and cultural materials.

Additionally, the vague language in these proposed laws creates uncertainty about what materials might be deemed “harmful” and targeted for restriction. For example, books about significant historical events like the Holocaust could be banned simply because they contain nudity, even if the nudity is not sexual. This vagueness and potential for harsh penalties make everyone nervous, leading to self-censorship and reluctance to engage with specific topics or materials.

AR: How can readers stay connected to these issues and support the fight against censorship?

JF: Stay informed about local issues, support organizations like us at PEN America, and engage with advocacy groups working to protect freedom of expression. Get active and get informed in your local communities. Public school issues are fundamentally local issues, and if these issues impact local libraries or museums, those are going to be local issues first. Beyond that, there is a moment we are in nationally where it is valuable to have people informed about these issues as they continue to spread from state to state. This is not a fight people can sit on the sidelines of, if we are to be successful at standing against this tidal wave of state censorship.

AR: And internationally?

JF: We are constantly working to raise international issues. Several alarming developments have occurred in other countries, such as in Hungary. But even in Canada, which seems to be being impacted by some of these developments in the US, is seeing new contention around books in schools and libraries.

At the end of the day, this is about people understanding that we live in a global world where what is potentially going to be advanced in the United States can have its roots or its template in other authoritarian countries. So, there is a need to benefit from being aware of what’s happening in the broader world, and how it mirrors or in this case has appeared to foreshadow tactics of censorship.

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