Dem lawmakers target book bans in public libraries as censorship rises

By: - May 22, 2023 6:49 am

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, a young-adult novel by Sherman Alexie, is one of the top 10 most challenged books, according to the American Library Association. (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)

Libraries and public schools in New Jersey would be prohibited from banning books — and would lose state funding if they did so — under new legislation introduced Monday.

Public libraries would be required to adopt the American Library Association’s “library bill of rights” or a similar policy under the bill sponsored by Sens. Andrew Zwicker (D-Somerset) and Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex) and Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-Essex).

That document tasks libraries with challenging censorship, bars book removal for “partisan or doctrinal disapproval,” directs libraries to offer books and other materials that present “all points of view on current and historical issues,” and forbids removal or restriction of materials because of objections about the “origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation.”

The bill would authorize state education and treasury officials to withhold funding from any public school or library that fails to comply.

Zwicker told the New Jersey Monitor he was moved to introduce the bill after hearing Martha Hickson, a North Hunterdon High School librarian, speak about a month ago. Hickson won the Lemony Snicket Prize for Noble Librarians Faced with Adversity last year for successfully fighting a community group’s efforts to ban five LGBTQ-themed books at her school.

“This is about not allowing intolerance and hatred to be infused into our libraries at all,” Zwicker said. “Ideas are there to be debated and to be discussed. And sometimes ideas make us uncomfortable, but that uncomfortableness doesn’t mean that we should ban things. We should talk more about them.”

The move comes as Republican lawmakers have called for more scrutiny of books in public school libraries.

Sen. Andrew Zwicker (D-Somerset) has introduced legislation that would prohibit public libraries, including those in public schools, from banning books. Scofflaws would lose state funding. (Hal Brown for New Jersey Monitor)

Zwicker, a parent of three grown children and the son of a public school English teacher, said parents are free to restrict what their children read, but “their choice does not get to dictate everybody else’s choice.”

He said the extensive book banning and burning that occurred in Nazi Germany in the 1930s should remain in the history books.

“The fact that we are in 2023 and debating whether or not we should be banning books and banning ideas is just outrageous,” Zwicker said.

The legislation comes as book bans are rising nationally and in New Jersey.

Already this year, officials have pulled books off shelves, or considered doing so, at public schools and libraries in New Jersey towns like Glen RidgeSpartaBernards Township, and Washington Township.

Across the country, book bans rose 28% in the first half of the current school year over the last half of the previous school year, according to an April study by PEN America.

The group, which advocates for the First Amendment and against book bans, listed 1,477 instances of individual books banned involving 874 unique titles from July to December 2022. In the past two years alone, the group tallied more than 4,000 book-banning instances.

Book banners most often target stories by and about people of color and LGBTQ people, according to the study. More than half of the books banned are about race, racism, characters of color, or LGBTQ characters or themes, although books covering other topics — violence and abuse, health and well-being, and death and grief — are increasingly targeted for censorship, the study found.

(Graphic courtesy of PEN America)

PEN America filed a federal lawsuit this month against a Florida school district for its book bans that the group’s attorney called “blatantly unconstitutional attempts to silence and stigmatize.”

Last year, several GOP legislators in New Jersey introduced a bill that would require public schools to post a comprehensive list online of all books and materials available in their libraries and another bill that would require public schools to make textbooks and other materials used to implement curriculum plans available for inspection by parents and guardians.

Those bills have not moved in either chamber.


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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.