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Happy Banned Books Week!

Just in time for Banned Books Week, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a law banning book bans under certain circumstances. But that’s not going to stop the very dedicated forces of censorship, one of whom The Washington Post profiled this week.

Last spring, a Post analysis found that 11 people in the entire United States account for 60% of the formal requests filed to remove specific books from schools. Jennifer Petersen is one of them. She’s a Virginia woman who has, over the past year, challenged 71 books in the Spotsylvania County Public Schools.

All of Petersen’s challenges are based on sexual content, which she painstakingly documents in books she reads for the purposes of getting them banned. She follows lists of books facing banning efforts, reads them, virtually always concludes they are offensive—those 71 books she’s challenged are out of 73 total she’s read for this purpose—and goes to the school board to complain. Since the Spotsylvania school board made news in 2021 when two members called for book-burning, she has a sympathetic audience.

The Post reports:

Most of all, she just doesn’t understand why schools need to stock books with graphic sex scenes, which she defines as anything beyond the “fade-to-black” moment in movies. She never found any such scenes in her school books growing up. She doesn’t think steamy or violent sex acts are educational. She has always kept her children from reading books with material like that.

She kept her children from reading books with material like that—and now she’s dedicated to keeping everyone else’s children from having access as well. Petersen has an astonishing level of commitment to this project, specifically flagging 1,335 pages in those 71 books as problematic and submitting 434 pages of objections to the books. A team of 11 librarians has been working extra hours without pay to respond to Petersen’s challenges.

That level of individual dedication dovetails with the censorship campaigns of high-profile right-wing figures like Christopher Rufo and Corey DeAngelis, who use their considerable social media followings to defend incidents of book-banning and spread the word about the latest targets. In a different political environment, someone like Petersen showing up month after month with more demands for books to be banned would be seen as the problem and shut down. In the United States in 2023, with political leaders like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis imposing book bans from the top down, the people emboldened to push such efforts at the local level have more leverage.

In California, effective immediately after its signing:

AB 1078 provides the Superintendent of Public Instruction the authority to buy textbooks for students in a school district, recoup costs, and assess a financial penalty if a school board willfully chooses to not provide sufficient standards-aligned instructional materials for students. The law also prohibits school boards from banning instructional materials or library books on the basis that they provide inclusive and diverse perspectives in compliance with state law.

That’s not a full prohibition on banning any book—some censors, like DeSantis, are upfront that they are banning books with LGBTQ+ content, for instance, but others hide behind claims that sexual content makes books “pornographic,” even when they come nowhere close to meeting the standards for pornography. Nonetheless, it’s a strong move from California.

Banned Books Week runs from Oct. 1 to Oct. 7.

Republished with permission from Daily Kos.


October 2023