‘Moderation’ or ‘Ideological Control’? Congress Hears Testimony on Book Removals

Brendan Clarey | October 20, 2023

(Chalkboard News) — A congressional panel in the House of Representatives heard testimony from witnesses about the different perspectives on graphic books in school libraries. Such debates over the appropriateness of explicit books that students can access have occurred nationwide in school board meetings. 

The Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education held a hearing Thursday on “combating graphic, explicit content in school libraries.”

Republican lawmakers favored the removal of inappropriate material, while Democrats supported allowing historically marginalized students to access books that represent their identity.

U.S. Rep. Aaron Bean, a Republican from Florida and the chair of the committee, opened the hearing by warning audiences that the content discussed would not be appropriate for children, slammed the Biden administration’s appointment of a book-removal official and said the hearing would try to find “state and local level solutions.” 

Bean balked at the idea that Republicans want to burn or criminalize the ownership of books, calling efforts to limit access to books “age-appropriate moderation.” 

“The committee will ask ourselves today: Do communities have the right to remove inappropriate content from library shelves?” Bean asked. “Of course they do. School boards, communities and parents constantly set standards of decency.” 

Oregon Democrat and ranking member Rep. Suzanne Bonamici said books in school libraries should be age-appropriate and said a federal government response would be the wrong way to handle concerns over books. 

In her opening remarks, Bonamici said some books have been targeted because of the stories they tell, citing a book called “The Hate You Give,” which deals with racism and police violence. Bonamici said the book has been targeted in four states. 

Bonamici cited a U.S. Supreme Court case that found school boards cannot limit what books students have access to “simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books.”

Bonamici said Republicans are waging a culture war to “undermine the public school system” and to “justify defunding public school systems and libraries, preferring instead to funnel public funds into low-quality, private voucher programs.”

The witnesses included Moms for Liberty’s Lindsey Smith, Jonathan Friedman from the free speech organization PEN America, Max Eden from the American Enterprise Institute and Wyoming State Schools Superintendent Megan Degenfelder. 

Smith said that her 3-year-old son brought home a book that encouraged children to find images of “leather,” a “drag queen” or “underwear,” Smith said. She said that when she found out the book would be used in her son’s curriculum, she decided to start speaking up.

Smith also discussed some graphic imagery in the challenged book “Gender Queer.” 

Friedman said that his organization, PEN America, defends free expression and said groups of activists have “launched a campaign to exert ideological control over public education, unprecedented in its scope, scale and size.”

Eden said parents have been “slandered” by organizations and media who call them book-banners. 

“My testimony today is simple. Books aren’t being banned,” Eden said. “But many parents prefer that school libraries not stock pornographic materials, and some school board members agree that this is reasonable.”

Eden said alarm over the term “book ban” is justified but is not what is going on in schools around the country. 

Degenfelder told lawmakers that she is concerned that parents are losing trust in public schools and that one of the top concerns she heard from voters while campaigning was related to explicit material in school libraries. 

Degenfelder said there are many incredible teachers and librarians and that these books are not available everywhere.

“But there are books available, paid for by taxpayer dollars, with graphic depictions of sexual acts that are made available to minor children under the age of sexual consent,” Degenfelder told lawmakers.