Banning books is not what America is about


Perhaps we Americans are overly confident in the belief that our constitutional rights, including the First Amendment right to free speech, are inviolate. Weapons of authoritarians, book banning and forced censorship, are outlawed by that amendment. Over the past several years, however, to the delight of the MAGA base, we have watched Republican states attempt to whitewash the teaching of American history through the banning of books.
Book banning, a form of censorship, occurs when individuals, government officials or organizations remove books from libraries, school reading lists or bookstore shelves because they object to their content, ideas or themes. To be clear, there is nothing “conservative” about it. If anything, it is symptomatic of hatred, fear and ignorance.
According to the Associated Press, attempted book bans and restrictions at school and public libraries set a record in 2022. The American Library Association reported more than 1,200 challenges — nearly double the then-record total from 2021 and by far the most since the association began keeping data 20 years ago. According to a PEN America report, from July to December 2022, there were 1,477 cases of books being removed, up from 1,149 during the previous six months. Since PEN began tracking bans in July 2021, it has counted more than 4,000 instances of book removals, with 41 percent of last year’s banned books featuring LGBTQ themes or major characters who are gay or transgender.
In Florida, run by a governor who has made book-banning part of his modus operandi, the pop star Pink has joined the fight against it, collaborating with PEN to give away thousands of challenged books at her concerts. “Books have held a special joy for me from the time I was a child, and that’s why I am unwilling to stand by and watch while books are banned by schools,” Pink said in a PEN statement about the giveaway. “It’s especially hateful to see authorities take aim at books about race and racism and against LGBTQ authors and those of color. We have made so many strides toward equality in this country and no one should want to see this progress reversed.”
Even here in supposedly blue New York, there have been at least 13 book bans in four school districts. The issue is nothing new. Long Islanders of a certain age should recall a case resulting in a 1982 landmark Supreme Court ruling.

In Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District v. Pico, the court ruled 5-4 that public schools can ban books that are “pervasively vulgar” or not right for the curriculum, but they cannot remove books “simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books.”
One of the plaintiffs in the case, Steven Pico, a high school kid at the time, is still strongly advocating against book banning 40 years later. As am I. During the last legislative session, I proposed a bill that would require all libraries to adopt the library association’s Library Bill of Rights, stating that materials shouldn’t be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval and/or develop a written statement prohibiting the practice of banning books or other materials. The bill would end book bans across New York. I don’t stand alone in the Assembly, where at least two similar bills were proposed in the most recent session, including one that would withhold aid to libraries that ban books.
It’s sad that legislation like this is necessary in a country where freedom of speech and expression is guaranteed and the Supreme Court has extended this protection to what we read. But this is the state of the nation in the Trump era. That said, I am confident that New York will enact legislation to prohibit the very few from imposing their narrow moral vision on the rest of us.
In the current climate, it is now more important than ever that we stand united against those who, out of fear, oppose the idea of opening our children’s minds to differing viewpoints and ways of life.
Americans’ rights have been paid for by the blood of our patriots since the Revolutionary War. Americans of good faith must now stand together. Plato was right when he wrote, “If you do not take an interest in the affairs of your government, then you are doomed to live under the rule of fools.”

Chuck Lavine represents the 13th Assembly District.