By Aziah Siid

Originally appeared in Word in Black

If freedom of expression is deeply ingrained in American society, why were more than 3,000 book bans reported in the 2022-2023 school year? 

Organizations like the National Coalition Against Censorship have been asking questions like this for almost 50 years. Founded in 1974, NCAC has worked tirelessly on the frontlines to promote freedom of thought and inquiry and to oppose censorship. 

Christine Emeran, director of NCAC’s Youth Expression Project, says the demand to protect student thought, speech, and intellectual opportunity is higher now than ever.

That’s why the group is expanding its Youth Expression Project to include a Kids Right to Read Network to meet the demand. The goal of the project is to “bring communities together on the local level” and organize community activists to prevent the removal of books in schools and public libraries. 

The KRRN is an extension of the Kids Right to Read Project, which has been in existence under NCAC for more than 20 years. Their work to help create and push legislation against book censorship began in the 1980s during an uptick in book bans.

“There really wasn’t a procedure or a review process to handle challenges” at that time, Emeran says, “so a lot of the policies we see today developed in the 1980s.” 

Although much of the spotlight has focused on Florida’s rejection of an Advanced Placement African American studies course and a school’s decision to pull Disney’s “Ruby Bridges” film from the classroom, other states like Arizona and Utah have also restructured policy to remove books in libraries and classrooms.

Collaborating and Building United Fronts 

NCAC offers anti-censorship resources, including free data, tools, and a book ban map for communities looking to celebrate the freedom to read and push back against the rising tide of censorship in public education during this year’s Banned Books Week, from October 1-7. 

The group works with 59 nonprofit partners, including free speech organizations, like the ACLU, American Library Association, PEN America, and the National Council of Teachers of English, Emanan tells Word In Black. 

“We all have the shared values of depending on you know, the freedom to read.”  

NCAC boasts about 15 free speech groups in nine states that organize, network, and strategize with each other on how to be effective activists and how to prevent books being removed from their libraries. 

Because they’re not educators, they don’t defend particular titles, Emanan says, but they do  advocate for “open access” to information “deemed by professionals to have “ educational merit.” That means defending the right of librarians and professionals to do what’s appropriate for their communities, and for students to have access to books in theirs.

Student Leadership In Anti-Censorship

Student advocates want to speak out publicly about the books that shape their experience being pushed off shelves, especially those that reflect their lived experiences as a Black or LGBTQ+ person in America, Emanan says.  

The group launched a pilot program called “Students Advocate for Speech” last year as an opportunity for them to use their voice. “This is actually a high school free speech club, where kids work on advocacy campaigns and defending their free expression rights, whether it’s press freedom, whether it’s education, against educational censorship, to working with our partners on National Days of Advocacy.” 

“It’s one thing for adults, parents, and advocates to speak on behalf of the needs of students,” Emeran says. “But giving young people the opportunity to share their own thoughts with policy leaders and decision makers is a form of advocacy that gives students leadership and publishing opportunities in the high school space.”

NCAC also runs a Youth Free Expression Film Contest that’s been around for 20 years. It usually centers on a free speech theme, including democracy and book bans, allowing high school students up to university freshmen to submit short films on a particular theme to express their ideas.

And they work with parents to submit Freedom of Information Act requests, monitor state laws, attend school board meetings, and generate media attention against censorship. 

Protecting Teacher Speech 

As stories of censorship grow, teachers are also on alert, raising questions of conflicts when educators and parents bring different ideas about what students should read. In one case, Atlanta teacher Katie Rinderle was fired after reading “My Shadow Is Purple,” a book about being true to who you are and moving beyond the gender binary, by the Australian author Scott Stuart. 

With so many different state policies, Emanan recommended several ways for educators to continue doing what they love but stay protected. 

“First and foremost, teachers’ speech is kind of restricted to the state, so the state has control over what teachers can say, so in a school environment, that’s something to be mindful of,” Emanan says. 

School librarians and other education professionals can seek support from their affiliated national associations like the American Library Association and English teachers can consult the National Council of Teachers of English. 

If necessary, Emanan advises educational professionals  to seek legal counsel before taking up a particular lesson that may be controversial. Emanan also suggests teachers speak to their unions before introducing material that may cause trouble, “because we don’t want them to have to lose their jobs.”