Pennsylvanians address rise in censorship, book bans
Lawmakers, parents, students, teachers, librarians, and advocates gathered in Harrisburg to discuss the concerning rise in censorship and book bans across the Commonwealth.
State Sen. Amanda M. Cappelletti (D-Mongomery/Delaware) and State Rep. Paul Friel (D-Chester) promoted two legislative solutions.
Senator Cappelletti has introduced Senate Bill 926, prohibiting book bans in Pennsylvania’s libraries. The bill will bar school libraries and classrooms from removing books for any political, racial, or ideological reasons. It will set the standard that in order to receive state money, a public library must adopt the American Library Association's Library Bill of Rights that indicates materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval or develop a written statement that prohibits the library from banning books or other materials. The bill will also preempt municipalities from cutting funding to local libraries if they adopt this policy.
"The discourse on the rise of book bans also distracts us from what our mission as a Commonwealth needs to be: we must build up our community resources, make knowledge more accessible, and provide the public with places to indulge their curiosities and challenge their perspectives,” said Sen. Cappelletti.
Rep. Friel has introduced House Bil 1506, the Freedom to Read Act, which seeks to provide a more uniform and efficient process for those appeals, placing the responsibility for those reviews with a regional committee of instructional experts. This committee should include a cross section of qualified local teachers, librarians, principals, and administrators. This will allow for greater effectiveness of review, decrease hyper-politization, and relieve the administrative burden on the local school districts.
“Books are the window that allow our students to see and explore the world. They can teach us, they challenge us, they open our imaginations, but they are also safe places,” said Rep. Friel. “Sometimes, our kids, they’re out there, they’re by themselves. They think they’re alone, but it is in the library where they discover they are not.”
The lawmakers were joined by Buzz Bissinger, who authored Friday Night Lights, which was recently banned in an Iowa school district after they used artificial intelligence (AI), specifically ChatGPT to audit their book collection. The ban was since reversed but signals a dangerous future for censorship when AI gets involved. “How can you ban a book without reading it?” said Bissinger, after explaining that the reversal of the book ban came after those in charge of the bans took the time to read the book that they had banned.
Not only is this a dangerous trend, but book bans are also very unpopular: when it comes to state lawmakers removing certain books from schools, such bans have the support of just 5 percent of Democrats, 16 percent of Independents and 35 percent of Republicans. Fifty-two percent of Republicans oppose these efforts.
Parents, teachers, librarians, and students shared their concerns about the increasing censorship across the Commonwealth and the impacts that the trend is having on their communities. Not only are they unhappy with how these discussions are being initiated, but they also shared concern that the books being targeted are those that represent marginalized voices and communities.
“If you examine the books that are being challenged and banned, overwhelmingly they are the stories of historically marginalized communities. These books share the lives and stories of our LGBTQ neighbors, Black community members, Indigenous citizens and our own national history. When these stories are challenged and banned it is saying that these communities do not matter, or worse yet, that they are to be feared. What does that say to students who most identify with the characters and stories in these books?” said Matthew Good, a former Pennsylvania public school librarian.
Kate Nazemi, a parent of two students in the Central Bucks School District, supports the policies introduced by Sen. Cappelletti and Rep. Friel. Nazemi said, “We need legislation to protect research-based, standard PSLA, PSBA school library policy. We must balance a parent’s interest in guiding their child with the school’s mandate to educate every student. Every family must retain the right for their kid to read high quality, age-appropriate literature freely and according to their interests in every school district in the commonwealth.”
Students joined to voice their discontent with recent book bans in their school district. Seniors from Central York School District spoke at the event, saying, “Every story is a story, and someone in your school needs them. To school administrators, board members, and educators everywhere, please listen to your students,” said Trianne Duncan.