Bloomington Jefferson senior Shae Ross, center, joined Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan, left, at an event promoting proposed legislation to prevent books bans based on ideology at Como Park High School in St. Paul, Minn., on March 21, 2024. Source: Chris Williams/Education Minnesota via AP

Minnesota and Other Democratic-Led States Lead Pushback on Censorship. They're Banning the Book Ban

Steve Karnowski and Mike Catalini READ TIME: 5 MIN.

As a queer and out youth, Shae Ross was alarmed when she heard that conservative groups were organizing in her community to ban books dealing with sexuality, gender and race. So she and her friends got organized themselves, and helped persuade their school board to make it much harder to remove books and other materials from their libraries and classrooms.

Ross, an 18-year-old senior in the Minneapolis suburb of Bloomington, is glad to see that her governor and leaders in several other states are fighting the trend playing out in more conservative states where book challenges and bans have soared to their highest levels in decades.

"For a lot of teenagers, LGBT teenagers and teenagers who maybe just don't feel like they have a ton of friends, or a ton of popularity in middle or high school ... literature becomes sort of an escape." Ross said. "Especially when I was like sixth, seventh grade, I'd say reading books, especially books with gay characters ... was a way that I could feel seen and represented."

Minnesota is one of several Democratic-leaning states where lawmakers are now pursuing bans on book bans. The Washington and Maryland legislatures have already passed them this year, while Illinois did so last year. It was a major flashpoint of Oregon's short session, where legislation passed the Senate but died without a House vote.

According to the American Library Association, over 4,200 works in school and public libraries were targeted in 2023, a jump from the old record of nearly 2,600 books in 2022. Many challenged books – 47% in 2023 – had LGBTQ+ and racial themes.

Restrictions in some states have increased so much that librarians and administrators fear crippling lawsuits, hefty fines, and even imprisonment if they provide books that others regard as inappropriate. Already this year, lawmakers in more than 15 states have introduced bills to impose harsh penalties on libraries or librarians.

Conservative parents and activists argue that the books are too sexually explicit or otherwise controversial, and are inappropriate, especially for younger readers. National groups such as Moms for Liberty say parents are entitled to more control over books available to their children.

But pushback is emerging. According to EveryLibrary, a political action committee for libraries, several states are considering varying degrees of prohibitions on book bans. A sampling includes California, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Kansas, Massachusetts, Missouri, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Vermont, though some in conservative states appear unlikely to pass. One has also died in New Mexico this year.

One such bill is awaiting Democratic Gov. Wes Moore's signature in Maryland. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signed a bill last month that sets a high bar for removing challenged materials, especially those dealing with race, sexual orientation and gender identity. A version pending in New Jersey would protect librarians from civil or criminal liability.

Some proposals are labeled "Freedom to Read" acts.

"That's what's so critical here. The voluntary nature of reading," said Martha Hickson, a librarian at North Hunterdon High School in New Jersey. "Students can choose to read, not read, or totally ignore everything in this library. No one is asking them to read a damn thing."

Hickson recalled how parents first suggested her book collections contained pedophilia and pornography during a school board meeting in 2021. She watched the livestream in horror as they objected that the novel "Lawn Boy" and illustrated memoir "Gender Queer" were available to students and suggested she could be criminally liable.

"Tears welled up, shaking" Hickson said. "But once my body got done with that, my normal attitude, the fight side kicked in, and I picked up my cell phone while the meeting was still going on and started reaching out."

Book bans have been a sore point for Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, a former high school teacher. The Minnesota Senate passed his proposal this month. It would prohibit book bans in public and school libraries based on content or ideological objections, and require that the key decisions about what books will or won't be offered be made by library professionals.

The state House is considering an approach with more teeth, including penalties and allowing private citizens to sue to enforce it.

"I'm working with stakeholders, with the Department of Education, librarians, school districts and their representatives," said Democratic Rep. Cedrick Frazier, of New Hope. "We're working to tighten up the language, to make sure we can come to a consensus, and just kind of make sure that everybody's on the same page."

Because of her activism, Ross, a student at Jefferson High School in Bloomington, was invited when Walz went to Como Park Senior High School in St. Paul last month to view a display of books banned elsewhere. The governor called book bans "the antithesis of everything we believe" and denounced what he depicted as a growing effort to bully school boards.

At a House hearing last month, speakers said books by LGBTQ+ and authors of color are among those most frequently banned. Karlton Laster, director of policy and organizing for OutFront Minnesota, who identifies as Black and queer, said reading their works helped him "communicate my hard feelings and truths to my family and friends," and helped him come out to his family.

Kendra Redmond, a Bloomington mother with three children in public schools, testified about efforts to push back against a petition drive by conservatives to pull about 28 titles from the city's school libraries.

Pushback from Ross, Redmond and others succeeded. The Bloomington School Board last month made it much harder to seek removals. Parents can still restrict access by their own children to material they deem objectionable.

Many challenges in the district came from the Bloomington Parents Alliance. One of its leaders, Alan Redding, recalled how his son's 9th grade class was discussing a book a few years ago when graphic passages about date rape were read aloud in class. He said his son and other kids were unprepared for something so explicit.

"They were clearly bothered by this and disgusted," Redding said. "My son absolutely shut down for the semester."

Minnesota Republican lawmakers have argued that instead of worrying about book bans, they should be focusing instead on performance in a state where just under half of public school students can read at grade level.

"Every book is banned for a child that doesn't know how to read," said GOP Rep. Patricia Mueller, a teacher from Austin.


Catalini reported from Trenton, New Jersey. Associated Press reporters Claire Rush in Portland, Oregon, and Brian Witte in Annapolis, Maryland, contributed to this story.

by Steve Karnowski and Mike Catalini

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