Legality of literature

From childhood favorites like “Charlotte’s Web” to thought-provoking classics like “1984”, thousands of books have been challenged and banned in the United States, but what does this process entail?

Judy Blume. Maya Angelou. S.E. Hinton. These authors have not only shaped generations of readers but they have something else in common. Their influential work has been challenged and banned in the United States, some of them making the list of the most banned authors.

Attempts to ban books nearly doubled in 2022, reaching 1,269 attempts. Some books simply get challenged by people in a community, while others are banned and removed from libraries and curriculums. Wanting to ban a book can stem from wanting to protect children from themes and ideas that a book might convey, including sexually explicit content, offensive language, and overall content unsuitable for young ages. 

The process by which a book is allowed to stay in public school libraries varies from state to state as well as school to school. The process starts with selecting materials that are included in the library and taught in curriculums. West High librarian, Jill Hofmockel, explains her part in this process at West. 

 “It is part of being a librarian that I am constantly developing our collections. So I am both selecting new materials and then deselecting materials that are out of date, are not accurate anymore, [or] not popular anymore,” Hofmockel said.

In addition to her oversight, the Iowa City Community School District has also established a reconsideration policy. The policy states that anyone within the school district community, including those who are not directly involved with the selection of materials, can formally challenge those of instructional and library use. If needed, the committee’s meetings, made up of both licensed employees and community members, may be subject to the open meetings law. After reviewing and evaluating materials as well as listening to the complainant, their final task is to decide whether to remove certain materials from all schools, take no action, or “agree on a limitation of the educational use of the materials.”

Hofmockel has worked in several school districts with reconsideration policies, and she even developed one for a  district that didn’t have one. She explains its importance among other school board policies.

“Having a reconsideration policy in place allows for an objective way to address questions about what is available in the school,” Hofmockel explained. “…I am actually ok with people raising challenges about books. I think that is totally the right of every member of the school community to do, and I’m glad I work in a district where there is a procedure in place when somebody does.”

While Hofmockel appreciates the policy and feels that the challenging of books is a right of the community, she does note some problems that can arise when books are challenged.

“It’s when we start seeing challenges to books, solely on the identity of the characters, and things like that, where I start to feel that removing some books from access for all students because maybe one community member or one small group of people don’t want it for their kids, isn’t necessarily fair to the other kids who would value and appreciate that,” she explained.

Information from the American Library Association (As)

Although the district has a policy in place to formally decide whether or not a book should be removed, sometimes the decision is out of their hands. Various laws around the country have both stopped and amplified the challenging and banning of books, including in Iowa. House File 802 signed into law in June of 2021 has limited the control that both public K-12 schools and public colleges have over their curriculum. It has banned the teaching of “divisive concepts”, including but not limited to the idea that “one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex” and that “the United States and the state of Iowa are fundamentally or systemically racist or sexist.”

This law has recently affected students at West. Earlier this year, English teacher Tom Lindsey’s dual enrollment Composition class began reading Ibram X. Kendi’s “How to be Anti-Racist” before the book was ultimately removed from the curriculum. Lindsey had gotten approval to use it from both West’s and Kirkwood’s administration however a complaint caused the book to be banned from the curriculum. It was pulled back to be further examined by the Equity Committee in which they concluded that Kendi’s book was in violation of the law. Lindsey explains his situation to be unique because although his class is considered a college course, it is still taught within the walls of West High, leading to gray areas when it comes to policies. 

When talking about book banning in general, Lindsey agrees that there are books that should not be included in a curriculum and understands concerns on the parental side of things. He also notes that not exposing kids to certain things is a disservice to students, including the topics discussed in Kendi’s novel.

“So what we’re doing is we’re not exposing students to this, and it’s an argumentative, rhetoric class,” Lindsey explained. “…You’re supposed to be able to read stuff, even if you don’t agree with it, to argue against [it] and say ‘I don’t agree with Kendi. I believe this and that. ‘ Okay, that’s great. Now, let’s hear your argument, how would you go against that? […] My whole mission statement is to get students to think for themselves and to challenge everything even you know, me, challenge me,” Lindsey said.

Many classrooms throughout the United States have been in the same situation as Lindsey’s, attempting to balance the curriculum and what books teachers think are valuable, and obeying the laws that continue to get passed. The recent increase in attempts to ban books has presented the question of how protected students should be from certain topics., and has brought about the possibility of major changes in curriculums.