On book bans and free speech

Sigal Ben-Porath of the Graduate School of Education says book bans and challenges affect free speech and expression. 

Sigal Ben-Porath in conversation at the Graduate School of Education
Sigal Ben-Porath is a professor in Penn’s Graduate School of Education, in the Literacy, Culture, and International Education Division. She studies the ways institutions like schools and colleges can sustain and advance democracy.   (Image: Eric Sucar)

Bans and challenges of books in schools and libraries are increasing and gaining traction in America, especially those that feature race and racism and gender identification and sexual orientation.

A recent report by PEN America shows an unprecedented rise in book bans and challenges, echoed by a special report by the American Library Association. News accounts chronicle campaigns against books, and counterefforts to stop or reverse them, creating tensions in cities and towns across the nation.

Book cover for Cancel Wars: How Universities Can Foster Free Speech, Promote Inclusion, and Renew Democracy

Penn Graduate School of Education Professor Sigal Ben-Porath says these efforts, part of the growing national cultural and political polarization, have a direct effect on free speech and expression, and can help form young peoples’ views of themselves and their place in their communities.

With expertise in the philosophy of education, Ben-Porath studies the ways institutions like schools and colleges can sustain and advance democracy. She is the author of six books, including “Free Speech on Campus” in 2017 and “Making Up Our Mind: What School Choice is Really About” in 2019. Her latest book, “Cancel Wars: How Universities Can Foster Free Speech, Promote Inclusion, and Renew Democracy” will be published in 2023.

Penn Today spoke with Ben-Porath about the implications of book bans and challenges in America, and how institutions of higher education can be involved in solutions.

How are book bans connected to free speech?

Those who are banning or limiting access to books often try to ensure that people don’t think in certain ways, and that they don’t speak in certain ways, or about certain topics. Banning books is an effort to make sure that difficult topics don’t come up, especially in schools. This is an aspect of a broader political and cultural struggle over who belongs, or what values prevail in American society.

In your view, why are book bans and challenges increasing now?

The issue of book banning within the context of the broader culture wars has two different dimensions. One is the electoral, partisan, political-power-play aspect: It’s a way to get people’s attention, to get people riled up and angry, to get them to pay more attention to politics and come out to vote. Books, curricula, teachers, schools, these are everywhere in every community. Close to 90% of American kids go to public school. So, if you find something in school that really angers people, is upsetting, it’s easy to get attention. The other aspect is more substantive, and that is the struggle to define the boundaries of the political community in America. In other words, who belongs? Whose voices should be heard? And today again the two most salient aspects of this are race, along with gender and sexuality; these are the main topics of books that are being questioned or pulled out of the libraries in different ways, being censored, being cancelled.

The struggle over race is a really a response, or a push back, to the racial justice wave that we have seen after the murder of George Floyd two years ago. I think the growing perception around the country is that a broad coalition of people who were very angry, who were awakened to aspects of racial injustice that maybe they were unaware of, or just didn’t pay attention to, or previously didn’t care too much about, especially non-Black people, this broad coalition joined with Black Americans and was looking to schools and to cultural artifacts like books to sustain this attention and commitment to preventing these injustices from happening. Curricula and books and schools and teachers were a way to sustain this effort, to say: We can’t go on like this, we have to change the way that certain institutions, like the police, are treating Black people, but also more broadly the racial injustice seen for a very long time in this country. An effort to say, ‘Let’s use this moment to train teachers, to expose children to these issues, to make sure that we are making a difference here.’ Book banning is a backlash to that movement.

And the backlash is similar regarding sexuality and gender expression. We have seen the legal recognition of marriage equality. We are seeing the proliferation of books and materials in classrooms and libraries in celebration of Pride Month, and the greater visibility and cultural acceptance of transgender, and nonbinary, and diverse-gender-expression individuals in books and movies and society. We are seeing more recognition of equal rights, or the demand for equal rights and equal representation, of individuals with diverse forms of gender expression and diverse identities in the domain of gender and sexuality.

Book banning is a pushback against these efforts to expand our vision of our community, to try to entrench and limit again the scope of what is appropriate and what is desirable.

What is next?

I assume this struggle will continue at the local and national levels, especially in schools. Books in schools and in libraries are just easier to regulate. It’s harder to regulate which characters you have on a Netflix show, but it’s pretty easy, relatively speaking, to elect people to state and local government, to school boards, who say, for example, ‘These books are corruptive,’ or ‘These are not age-appropriate,’ or ‘We are reviewing these books,’ and creating processes for approving books that end up impoverishing libraries and curricular material in the presentation of diverse people. Which obviously is a disconcerting, because people have diverse identities, and they’re here, in our neighborhoods and classrooms, they’re not going anywhere, so trying to erase them from our cultural materials, from a book, from our teaching materials, does nothing to make them disappear. In reality, it makes them hide. It makes them shameful and uncomfortable and feel rejected. The book bans are telling them that they are not accepted as equal members of our community. I am encouraged by the efforts at the local and national levels to organize and to push back against book bans.

What is the effect of these book bans?

My worry is that at least in the areas where these efforts gain ground, you will see people who are not aligned with this conservative vision of ‘appropriate behavior,’ of being ‘proper and respectable people,’ just not finding room for themselves. You will see people from diverse racial and ethnic groups, gay and trans people, recognize that some prominent members of their community would prefer that they not be there. I think that’s a terrible message to send to anyone, and definitely to young children.

This is not new to LGBTQ folks, who are being pushed back into the closet through the mechanism of erasing their presence in the public domain with the message: ‘You shouldn’t be out as an individual,’ and ‘We shouldn’t encourage you to be out by representing you positively in a book, or a TV show, or a film.’

Regarding the racial issue, it’s a little different. Those who are seeking to ban books about racial history and relations, about injustice or inequality, are trying to minimize both the history of slavery and discussion on injustices today. It’s an effort to represent history since the Civil Rights movement as having fixed any issues Black Americans face. It is an effort to cleanse the public discourse from references to unpleasant, uncomfortable truths, about American history and current reality, a discussion that is deemed uncomfortable for white people, and in particular white children. This effort, which is represented by banning books, for example about Martin Luther King Junior or Ruby Bridges, is really at the heart of book banning. I don’t think that’s a good goal for educators. Complex, complicated, age-appropriate conversations are hard, but the fact that it’s hard does not means that it needs to be scrubbed away. Teachers need to be supported in having these conversations, and books are a great aid for that.

Do book bans really make much of a difference, with access to just about anything via cell phone or computer?

What you read at school is very nice and good and important, but it’s definitely not the main avenue through which you get your information, and your understanding of your society. Of course, a lot of the same people who are banning books are also trying to regulate social media and the Internet. So, while the effort to censor is not focused only on books, I am very concerned about the limitations on books, I think about children and young people who live in less-affluent areas, or where there’s less diversity, and where you don't always have broadband, and not every kid has an iPhone in their pocket. What do you do if you’re the one Muslim kid in your school? What do you do if you are 13 and think that you are gay?

I also worry culturally about the message that we’re sending, because even if you can get information through your phone, the book ban lets you know that those in your community—maybe your own teachers or elected officials—see these aspects of your reality and identity as something to be ashamed of, to be embarrassed about, to be silent about, something that doesn’t belong. Kids get this message, which is both personally difficult and socially chilling.

How can higher education be involved?

Truth and inclusion should, in my view, serve as the guiding principles for organizing the public discourse around difficult topics.

We need tools for assessing the effort to cancel or silence different forms of expression, through banning books and other means. What is a reasonable argument about a book being inappropriate for a classroom? Can we agree about criteria for selecting books and teaching materials? Truth and inclusion are the two main dimensions of assessing the arguments. One, we need to refer to evidence, as accepted by relevant studies, to assess what should or should not be a part of our teaching materials. The second is a question of inclusion: We need to ensure that people who are within our community can properly see themselves as belonging, as positively represented. How do you create equal standing for everyone who lives here, and ensure that they have their voices heard?

Institutions of higher education are important for developing evidenced-based tools for assessment. They can also help advocate for using truth and inclusion as the guiding principles for learning in K-12 schools. Similar struggles are taking place on college campuses, and the culture wars over the boundaries of speech are familiar to us. Higher education is already setting the expectations for what children should learn in school, through our admissions policies and what we expect high school graduates to know. We should support schools by calling for inclusive learning environments, reliance on evidence-based decisions about teaching materials, and above all, free thought and free inquiry.