At Subcommittee Hearing, Witnesses Detail the Devastating Impact of Book Bans on Students and Teachers
Washington, D.C. (April 7, 2022)—Today, Rep. Jamie Raskin, Chairman of the Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, held a hearing to examine the ongoing efforts across the country to ban books from schools and public libraries.
“The vast majority of books being targeted for censorship are not mandatory or part of the curriculum for students to read. They are books of choice—students can pull them off the shelves if they want to and check them out. Or they can ignore them entirely,” Chairman Raskin said in his opening statement. “Many books are being targeted for censorship these days simply because they address racism or white supremacy as historical or sociological realities or address LGBTQ+ issues—because the protagonist or author is gay or a person of color, or for some other allegedly objectionable reason.”
The Subcommittee heard testimony from Christina Ellis and Olivia Pituch, high school students from York County, Pennsylvania; Shreya Mehta, a high school student from Richland, Washington; Ruby Bridges, civil rights activist and author; Samantha Hull, a librarian from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania; Jessica Berg, a teacher from Loudon County, Virginia; Mindy Freeman, a parent from Bucks County, Pennsylvania; and Dr. Jonathan W. Pidluzny, Vice President of Academic Affairs, American Council of Trustees and Alumni.
Members and witnesses explained how efforts by ideologically motivated organizations and legislators to remove books from schools and public libraries erase history and further stigmatize students who may otherwise find a safe haven in books.
- Ms. Pituch, a high school student, testified: “Many kids find refuge in going to school and being within an inclusive community. But as education on inclusion slips away, the safe haven does too. I have heard slurs being thrown around, LGBTQ+ kids being made fun or verbally abused, and more.”
- Ms. Ellis, another high school student, testified: “Banning books of those of a minority or unique background silences their voices and erases their history. And arguably it is taking away their right to express themselves. These are words on a page that have the power to change a cold heart to warm. It’s not indoctrination, it’s education.”
- In response to a question from Rep. Pressley, Ms. Bridges testified: “Thinking about everything that I heard this morning, it seems to me that we have so many of these books of choice, that the reason why, is that our young people cannot find their stories and contributions, sacrifices, to this country in the books that we do not have a choice in. And that is in our textbooks. So, it would seem to me that these books of choice—it’s even more crucial that we have them so that our young people in schools have a place to go to find their stories and contributions to this country.”
- Rep. Pressley responded to Ms. Bridges by saying, “These book bans are really no more than a malicious political campaign of erasure—erasure of civil rights, history, erasure of LGBTQ equality, erasure of all the hard-fought progress made that allows our babies the chance to learn in accepting and nurturing classrooms. But of course, this is not just about knowledge. I could argue that books save lives. I know it saved my own when I was a child, in real time, experiencing child abuse. I picked up Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings from my school library, and it was the first time in the midst of all the shame and fear that I was experiencing that I knew I was not alone in the world.”
Witnesses explained that many of the books being challenged or banned discuss racial equity, have minorities as protagonists, address LGBTQ+ issues, or have Black or LGBTQ+ authors. Witnesses detailed the impact that removing these books from schools and public libraries has on students, teachers, and society at large.
- Ms. Bridges explained: “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. 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.”
- Highlighting the impact the book George had on her transgender daughter, Ms. Freeman said, “banning and censoring books—especially LGBTQ books in schools K thru 12—promotes divisiveness, harm and hate … instead of kindness, education, and awareness. Schools are places of learning and when you take away access to these books, it removes a safe resource allowing LGBTQ children to see themselves in culture, learn about themselves, or allow others the opportunity to learn more.”
- When asked by Rep. Wasserman Schultz about the effect the passage of a “Don’t Say Gay” style law in Virginia would have on her and her students, Ms. Berg responded: “I had a student say to me, ‘I would rather kill myself than not be allowed to be who I am.’ That is absolutely affecting me as a teacher because I carry that with me.” She added, in response to a question from Rep. Norton: “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.”
- Responding to Ms. Bridges’ and Ms. Freeman’s testimony, Rep. Tlaib highlighted an interaction she had with her nine-year-old son, in which he said, “Momma don’t worry, if someone asks me if I’m Muslim, I’ll lie and tell them I’m not.” Rep. Tlaib explained, “That devastated me, that my child didn’t feel like he could exist. I want him to be able to pick up a book and see somebody of his faith or have the same lived experiences."
Members and witnesses discussed how the current efforts to ban books are part of a broader attack on free speech in the classroom and why combatting these efforts is crucial to protecting the First Amendment rights of students and teachers, and preserving free speech in America.
- In response to a question from Congresswoman Norton, Ms. Berg testified: “The books being banned are choice. They are not being forced on any student. You can decide for your own child not to let them read the book. You don’t get to make that choice for every other child in my school, in my school district, or in the nation.”
- Ms. Mehta, a high school student, testified: “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 continued: “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.”
- Ms. Hull, a librarian, testified: “Open-minded communication is not fostered when we start making individual, monolithic or one-sided decisions, especially without trained librarians’ input, about books based on out-of-context readings. When we take this road, we are limiting growth, we are stifling progress, and we are acting in the most undemocratic way possible. Adhering to loud minority viewpoints and not making space for all voices to be heard is not progress. Librarians urge everyone to take a minute to consider why a book or resource makes us uncomfortable, what it might be trying to teach us or what we are resisting to learn.”