Silent censorship of books is an attack on knowledge and open discourse

In the late winter of 2021, Andrew Maraniss anticipated the publication of his latest book about sports and social issues for young adults. He had received luminous reviews, numerous awards and dozens of speaking invitations from schools and libraries for his first two releases.

His next book, “Singled Out,” seemingly followed in this proven groove, telling the story of Glenn Burke, the first openly gay player in Major League Baseball.

Then Maraniss received a call from a familiar and supportive librarian near his home in suburban Nashville. “We can’t bring in ‘Singled Out,’ ” Maraniss recalls her telling him. “The LGBTQ subject matter would be controversial with the parents.”

Over the succeeding months, Maraniss received only silence from other librarians who had presented programs about his previous books — even as “Singled Out” went on be named one of the 100 best books ever about baseball.

What Maraniss experienced is becoming distressingly common amid a climate of organized, right-wing pressure on school boards, school administrators, teachers and librarians.

While it makes news when state legislatures outlaw the use of “The 1619 Project” in classes or when local boards ban books that deal with racial inequality and the LGBTQ experience, at least such public actions allow defenders of intellectual freedom to mobilize in opposition.

But when a librarian or teacher or principal, legitimately fearful of harassment and intimidation by extremists, decides not to adopt a potentially controversial book, the self-censorship is almost impossible to identify, much less fight against. And experts in literature and civil liberties see exactly this scenario spreading.

“We call it silent censorship,” said Deborah Caldwell Stone, director of the American Library Association’s office for intellectual freedom. “Understandably, many librarians are working in small libraries, in a school library, they’re on their own. In some situations, their employment is at stake. Then there’s the censorship accomplished by principals, even library trustees, who go into libraries and remove books. A book is on the shelf one day, then it’s gone, and it’s even erased from the catalogue.”

A deceitful attack, by politicians and pressure groups

Jonathan Friedman, the director of the free expression and education program at the writers’ organization PEN America, concurred: “It’s undeniable that there’s a chilling effect out there. It would be foolish to pretend that a chilling effect isn’t being manifested on libraries and librarians.”

As a writer an educator myself — one who is a member of PEN America and a donor to the American Library Association — I see these stealth bans as nothing less than an attack on history, knowledge and open discourse. And as a parent and step-grandparent, I consider it deceitful to portray librarians as the promoters of some kind of culturally subversive agenda.

The nemeses in the recent book wars range from Republican politicians pandering to the party’s MAGA base, such as Govs. Glenn Youngkin of Virginia and Ron DeSantis of Florida, to pressure groups like Moms for Liberty, which costume their assaults on free expression and historical truth as defenses of parental rights. Phrases like “grooming” and “critical race theory” get flung around like criminal indictments.

Any librarian or educator who stands up against those efforts runs the risk of being threatened. It is much safer to capitulate. Amanda Jones, who was selected the School Library Journal’s national librarian of the year in 2021, is the exception who proves the rule.

A middle-school librarian in Livingston Parish in Louisiana, Jones was accused last summer by a right-wing group called Citizens for a New Louisiana of “fighting so hard to keep sexually erotic and pornographic materials” available to children. Jones filed a defamation suit in parish court against two members of the group. A judge dismissed the suit in September, but Jones has filed papers to have it reinstated.

After receiving a death threat, Jones felt frightened enough to buy a Taser and mace and to install security cameras outside her home. And this effort to intimidate her is proceeding in her lifelong hometown and despite support for her from school administrators. So Jones well understands why many other librarians would relent.

“It’s very hard to be a librarian now,” she said. “You’re second-guessing every decision — every book display, every book purchase. It’s constant fear. The people who are complaining and are trying to ban and challenge books aren’t that large a group, but they’re so loud and they’re so vicious. And they don’t hesitate to get personal.”

Samuel G. Freedman is a journalism professor at Columbia University and the author of nine books.

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