Episode Summary

When you turn on your news app, YouTube, or television, chances are you’re going to be deluged with content about “cancel culture,” an amorphous term that no one ever actually defines, but which seems to be about private citizens criticizing other private citizens.

What you’re much less likely to hear about is that right now, America is facing an epidemic of censorship–actual government officials using their power to ban speech or content that they don’t like.

According to the free expression and literary human rights group PEN America, since 2021, there have been 185 educational gag orders in 41 states targeting authors and teachers from teaching specific books and topics. Censorship advocates are also coming after the nation’s public libraries, trying to block and remove materials they deem inappropriate based on their religious opinions.

In this episode, we’re joined by Jonathan Friedman, the director of free expression and education programs at PEN America.



MATTHEW SHEFFIELD: Welcome to Theory of Change, Jonathan.

JONATHAN FRIEDMAN: Yeah, thanks for having me.

SHEFFIELD: All right. Just real quick what are you guys defining as a gag order here? What is that?

FRIEDMAN: Sure. So this is a term that we coined in 2021 to reflect the rise of something that isn’t unprecedented in American history, but at the level and scope that we’re seeing was quite new: bills being written with the explicit intent of curbing conversations in classrooms.

And you know, that kind of kernel of an idea has taken many different forms. It has shifted over the past year and a half, two years. Sometimes it takes the shape of targeting specific ideologies or specific curricula. A lot of the ways it’s described most of the time is [00:02:00] very vague. So you can’t talk about this very general thing in a classroom.

And we have seen an explosion of these bills spread across many states. They began, I think, as a way to stomp the 1619 Project by the New York Times. But they quickly expanded and now they’re taking new form in new states and targeting not just K to 12 schools, but sometimes higher education as well.

And so what is it that unites these bills is that they seek to gag teachers, to essentially stop them from discussing or basically using their own professional discretion or expertise in how they conduct a classroom and engage controversial topics.

SHEFFIELD: Mhmm-hmm. What are these topics that are being targeted?

FRIEDMAN: Yeah. Well, most frequently, as I said, this began as a way to target the 1619 Project.

SHEFFIELD: What is the 1619 Project, for those who don’t know?

FRIEDMAN: Oh, sure. So the New York Times, the New York Times produced in 2019 what it called the 1619 Project. It was an academic journalistic project with a lot of essays looking at the history of the United States trying to suggest that there were continuities between the founding of the country in 1619, and the existence of the country in 2019, particularly about the history of slavery and the role of race and racism in that history. The topic was highly controversial.

It engendered a great backlash and then that backlash resulted in 2020 and then in 2021 with some new proposals to penalize school districts if they used any materials whatsoever from the project.

And so that means essentially, even if you wanted to teach an essay from that project alongside a essay with a differing perspective and you wanted to criticize it or engage the students in critical thinking, even introducing the material from the project itself was now, under these bills could be something that a district could be fined or a teacher could get in trouble for.

Now, those bills did not pass, but what they did was they [00:04:00] opened a floodgate. And what came next were differing, differing formulations off of a list of quote unquote, what were called divisive concepts.

Those came from President Trump. It was a list of things that couldn’t be discussed in classrooms, and it’s widely believed that that list was including basically conversations about racism in American history that had been covered by the 1619 Project, but it was no longer necessary to write a bill that specifically targeted just that one project alone.

You could write a bill that targeted diversity training, or inclusive curricula, or even library books about protagonists of color, even fiction books, but nonetheless, you could sweep in a great deal more content in schools to prevent it from being there, from being accessed by students or being taught by teachers.

And so that became the new way in which these bills proceeded towards the end of 2021. And then into 2022, we have seen that formulation continue to be adapted with new proposals attached. For example, some bills include mechanisms of surveillance: ‘Well, you can’t teach X or Y and we’re going to put a camera in classrooms now.’

Those bills didn’t pass either, but you can get the flare for the ideas that are floating around right now, where there is this very clear effort to put schools under a much greater microscopic scrutiny and infringe upon or, or take away what might be students’ rights to a more open classroom environment, where they could ask questions, even difficult questions and have them answered.

And then finally, this year in recent months, we’ve seen a pivot here where the same tactics that were once used against conversations about race and racism in American history has pivoted toward discussions in schools about LGBTQ identities. And so bills like the one in Florida, which ban any classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity before the fourth grade. And then that bill has been [00:06:00] copycatted in many other states right now.

SHEFFIELD: And one of the reports that your organization has issued as far as the book banning or people being targeted, it’s not just young children and materials for them that are being targeted. In the report, you talk about that 126 titles that were written for adults are being targeted for bans and 537 books targeted for young adults, people are trying to ban them as well. So it’s not just about the small children on this.

FRIEDMAN: No, not at all.

SHEFFIELD: I mean, does it seem to be an attempt to just not allow people who are LGBTQ to even have a place at the public in the public square? That’s what it seems like.

FRIEDMAN: That’s certainly what it seems like. And you know, YA, young adult literature, is a more recent genre. So classically, a lot of books that were written and then taught in schools are considered adult books, but it’s really just because they’re not considered anything else.

So is to what is To Kill a Mockingbird? What is Fahrenheit 451? We consider them today adult quote, unquote books, but it’s really just they’re works of fiction that were long taught in schools. The, the strange thing is, is some of the dystopian ideas in a book like Fahrenheit 451 are now seemingly coming true. I mean, we’re not quite at the book burning stage but nonetheless, one of the scenes in that book, somebody asks some, another character, ‘have you read the book before you burned it?’

And what’s very clear when you look at book banning around the country, a lot of times people aren’t reading the books before they restrict and ban them either, but it’s very clear that no one has really given a great deal of thought to the nuance necessary to consider what should be in a high school library in particular.

So think about it, you know, a high school student might be sexually active, a high school student might be interested in reading essentially at an adult level. But then unless there is this effort to entirely restrict books that deal with heavy themes– abuse, assault, suicide, prejudice– from [00:08:00] high school libraries. And so, in a lot of cases, we’re talking about restricting those materials, even from 17 and 18 year olds who ought to be encouraged to be reading at that age and encouraged to be encountering American classics.

SHEFFIELD: Mm-hmm well, and it’s, it’s not like these issues are not present in the lives of many people that are teenagers. They have to have some way of seeing that other people have dealt with these issues, especially if you’re right in the middle of them, it can often feel like that you’re the only one who’s ever had these problems.

FRIEDMAN: Of course. I mean, the number of students I meet, who talk about how a book changed their life, how a book made them feel seen or heard or understood. And that is in particular why some of the bans on LGBTQ books are so alarming is because often there isn’t a lot of such literature out there.

It’s really relatively new. Anybody over 20- 25 didn’t go to school, didn’t go to high school with these books in their libraries. And so it is newer and there’s less selection. But what that means is that a book can really truly be a lifeline for somebody who’s searching for their own identity, who doesn’t fit in with contemporary sexual norms.

I mean, one of the books that has been banned the most in the past year, the striking feature about the book is it’s actually autobiographical and the character is reflecting upon their asexuality. And I can tell you, I had never read a book– and many people haven’t– where the main character is trying to describe for everybody else in society what is it like to not want to be a sexual person? What is it like not to get satisfaction or desire from these things?

And that’s a surprising thing to read because you just don’t encounter a lot of literature that takes that on head on. And then you are able to understand what it means to identify like that.

What does it mean to live in the world and feel that way. And so if you take away the books, you take away the window that we have into other [00:10:00] people and difference.

SHEFFIELD: Mm-hmm. Now in terms of some of the states, it looks like Texas is by far the one with the most bans according to the report, there’s 713 bans of books there uh, 456 bans in Pennsylvania, which might surprise people, 204 in Florida.

And then it goes way down after that, Oklahoma 43, Kansas 30, Indiana 18. And so on down the list. Obviously Texas has a lot of people, so that would presumably explain some of that, but they’re just so much more than anyone else. I mean, what’s going on in Texas and Pennsylvania?

FRIEDMAN: Well, so that period that we produced that report, we released that report in April. We were looking at the period from July 2021 to March 2022. So over a nine month period, part of what drove up the number of bans in Texas, Pennsylvania were specific acts and specific districts. So it’s different stories in different places.

What is the common theme? The common theme is school officials just not acting with much precision or care. So getting lists of books and saying in both cases, ‘Okay well, let’s just remove all these books right now for everybody because somebody complained about them.’

So in Pennsylvania, what happened there is a story out of central York, it happened last fall. And there was a list of books that had been created to encourage and facilitate conversations. Diversity books that take racism head-on, books that feature protagonists of color, or even historical figures like Martin Luther King or Rosa parks. And there was a decision by the board to remove everything on the list because they felt that they hadn’t vetted the list.

They kind of reacted to somebody collating such a list by saying, ‘Okay, well, let’s ban everything on it.’

And I don’t think that the board members realized that they were effectively banning over 400 books and what was on there, books on all sorts of [00:12:00] topics.

In Texas, you have a different story. You have a politician who made a list of 850 books that he directed every school district in Texas to quote unquote investigate. And so you have school districts like Northeast Independent School District that took that directive and enacted it, and basically pulled from their shelves over 400 books at the discretion and order of an elected official. In Northeast, ultimately a number of those books did go back on the shelves, but many were simply discarded essentially because of a politician’s complaint about them.

So unfortunately that is becoming more common as in more states, more politicians have gotten involved and tried to do that.

SHEFFIELD: Huh. Well now have you guys looked at some of the organizations that are behind some of these bans? Is that something you you’re able to talk about at all?

FRIEDMAN: Well, it’s complicated. What does it mean to say an organization behind a ban?

What I can tell you is this. There’s a tremendous amount of activity and organization and coordination among some groups. Some of them are community groups. Some of them are parents groups. Some of them are community groups of people who are parents, but they might not have kids in public schools or they aren’t parents either.

And those groups are putting pressure locally on school districts. But those groups are not making bans happen. They are making demands for bans. What’s happening in a lot of cases is that school districts don’t know how to respond or they’re taking the opportunity not to respond in the most kind of serious fashion students’ rights to read those books.

And so in the face of those demands, often coupled with political pressure from elected officials, what they do is they kind of look at the list of materials and they decide that they agree with the people who want to remove them. And then they do so. So that’s, what’s happening in a lot of cases.

It’s not obvious to me that it is necessarily being coordinated, like nationally, by one person or one organization. It is indeed a dynamic field with many centers of [00:14:00] activity. But one of the new features is that a lot of times, once a book is challenged in one state, it will soon be challenged elsewhere. Once a new tactic or demand is made in one state by one group, another group might make the same demand in another state. And so you do see a little bit of this copycatting across states and across districts.

SHEFFIELD: Mm-hmm. Well, now you said that school districts appear, many of them appear not to know how to respond to this. Is it because they’re not used to dealing in a more politicized environment or they’re just, haven’t been aware that there are people out there that do want to censor things and they just have never dealt with them before? I mean, what is it, do you think?

FRIEDMAN: Well, it is a mix of things. I mean, some of the times, the books that are being challenged do deal explicitly with sex. And sometimes that makes a school board member, who has to be elected, squeamish and uncomfortable.

I mean, a lot of adults find discussions about puberty awkward. And so when they themselves personally see a book that discusses these facts of human life in ways, that that makes them uncomfortable as adults, or they’re under pressure to speak on the record, defending the freedom of students to read these materials, and someone is saying in a kind of morally questioning fashion: ‘How can you stand by this book being in your school?’

And a lot of the time people who are in political office are going to respond to that: ‘No, I agree with you. It shouldn’t.’ And so we’ve seen a lot of that in a lot of other cases, there just is a willingness to suspend existing processes. So you might have a school district where people have to fill out forms and demonstrate that they read books in the library in order to object to them. And then they get a hundred forms that are half filled out.

Well, do they reject them outright? In a lot of cases, they’re bending toward the pressures of the community saying: ‘Well, you sort of did your best to fill out a form. We sort of know what title you are you’re talking about. And so, okay, we’ll give into your demands because you have a lot of volume.’ You know, loudness [00:16:00] and school board meetings, pressure in other ways. And so in a lot of cases, it is just personalities making these decisions.

And there just isn’t necessarily a lot of support or public understanding of the elemental principles of the Constitution and the First Amendment and how they might apply to schools and to school libraries in particular.

SHEFFIELD: Mm-hmm. And they’re also trying to ban stuff from public libraries, which are not subject to educational curricula restrictions or anything like that. Can you talk about that aspect a little bit, aside from the school area?

FRIEDMAN: Sure. I’ve been watching this very closely. And I am quite convinced that this really did begin with school libraries and then kind of made a jump to public libraries.

But there has been a contingent out there who’s been attacking public libraries for a long time. It’s just, it never really went anywhere. You know, you’d have somebody demanding that we close the public library or not allow the library to celebrate LGBTQ Pride Month. Nobody really used to act on that or, or actually try to enforce it. Now, people are listening to those voices. Some politicians, others, grassroots movements are forming around this.

And so you have something like in June, a group called Catholic Vote that encouraged citizens to go to libraries and hide books about LGBTQ themes. It was called “Hide the Pride.” That was the name they gave it. And they were encouraging people to, encouraging adults to intervene, to stop other families, other parents, other children, not their own, in public libraries from accessing certain books.

And so that’s a pretty extreme step to take. We’ve also seen in some districts some librarians experiencing online harassment or criticism that crosses, I would say, a line in saying that a librarian who puts a book in a library that has any sex in it whatsoever is a groomer or interested in spreading pornography or a pedophile.

And this is a really heinous accusations. And they’re just [00:18:00] being flung at librarians and teachers left, right, and center. And so it’s happening in a few different ways around public libraries. Sometimes it is just demands to remove books, but it’s now spreading to programs, to displays, and to other ways in which libraries ought to be run.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And it seems like since these seem to be primarily local-focused efforts that people who might be opposed to them are not as aware of them, because people generally don’t pay as much attention to local politics. Do you think that’s accurate? Because I don’t see a lot of stories about this general topic in the mainstream press very much.

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