During the 2022–23 school year, book bans occurred in 153 districts across 33 states, according to a PEN America report. (Getty Images)
Nationwide, efforts to purge classrooms and libraries of certain books have opened deep fissures within communities. In Wisconsin, the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has been monitoring book bans, filing open records requests with six state school districts. The goal of the requests is to learn more about the reasons used to justify removing or restricting books that have been targeted by a nationwide campaign.
Tim Muth, interim legal director for the ACLU of Wisconsin, noted that the decision to file the records requests were fueled by communications from concerned citizens, as well as local news coverage. “We wanted to go directly to the school districts with our open records requests to see as much as possible what we could learn about who was requesting that books be removed from libraries, what processes were being used, who were the ultimate decision makers,” Muth told Wisconsin Examiner. “Were librarians – who are really the professionals involved in stocking and deciding what goes into libraries in the first place – were librarians being cut out of the process?”
The school districts of Menomonee Falls, Howard-Suamico, Waukesha, Elmbrook, and Kenosha Unified were the focus of these records requests. Accompanying the records requests themselves was a letter to the districts, advising that removing books can be seen as a threat to the First Amendment rights of students and their families. “The Supreme Court held over 40 years ago that ‘local school boards may not remove books from library shelves simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books’” the letter states.
Yet since 2020 a growing movement of parents has brought pressure not only on school boards and districts, but also elected officials, to take a closer look at books they feel are inappropriate for young students. Lists of books have been created by these parent groups, who then send the lists to sympathetic school board members and politicians. Many of the books cover LGBTQ+ topics and characters, gender identity, sexual education, racial discrimination and social justice issues.
Emails obtained from Republican lawmakers in Wisconsin show that while some books were seen as obscene, others were viewed as teaching students to “hate cops and hate their white skin.” Some constituents who emailed the lawmakers recommended that legal protections librarians and teachers have against prosecution under the state’s obscene materials laws should be removed. Republican legislators introduced bills in 2023 to remove those protections, and to report book checkouts by students to parents without the student’s consent. In some school districts like Elmbrook, student privacy policies have changed in recent months to send weekly summaries of a student’s library check outs to parents.
Muth said that the ACLU plans to publish the results of its records requests in some way. “We do want citizens, as school board elections come up next year, to make sure citizens understand the importance of local school board elections, participating in those processes, and what their local school administrations have been up to,” Muth told Wisconsin Examiner. Over the course of the book debates, Muth has seen award-winning works targeted. “We’re talking about books that are on the AP English Course list and so it is clear – and we’re going to test this by getting the open records – but it seems to me highly doubtful that what is really motivating anybody is the number of F-bombs in a book,” said Muth. “Or the nature of a particular sex scene in a book, for example. But instead, it is attempting to use those kinds of things and to make claims that all they’re doing is removing obscenity and profanity from the school libraries when instead what their focus is is a particular class of books. And the one thing that is the strongest does seem to be seeking to remove books on LGBTQ topics from school libraries.”
Although the issue of books in schools has seen a resurgence since 2020, the ACLU of Wisconsin filed its first lawsuit regarding the removal of LGBTQ books from a school library back in 1999. “So this is not a new issue here,” said Muth. “I’m not sure the issue ever completely went away, but it has certainly blazed up in the last two school years.”
Lists of books parents want removed have appeared in Altoona, Elkhorn, Waukesha, Elmbrook, and other areas. “The list in Elkhorn, I don’t think that anybody knows where that list of some 400 books came from,” Muth said. “We’ve seen that there is another online sort of book rating website that is referred to in the Menomonee Falls materials … It’s a website that lists literally hundreds of books, and sort of counts the number of examples of explicit sex, or the number of F-bombs in the book. And we’re trying to understand that particular website a little bit more.”
The website – BookLooks.org – has drawn attention since its launch in 2022 for its reputed connections to the book-banning movement. USA Today reported that it’s been used by Moms for Liberty, a right-wing group that spearheaded many efforts to remove and restrict books in schools. The group, which has chapters in Wisconsin, has been dubbed as an extremist anti-government organization by the Southern Poverty Law Center. BookLooks.org has issued statements on its website stating it does not support banning books.
Muth says that the ACLU isn’t concerned about the kinds of threats and intimidation that have swirled around school officials over race, gender and LGBTQ issues recently. “If we wre worried about groups like Moms for Liberty, we wouldn’t be the ACLU,” said Muth. Through its records requests to six Wisconsin school districts the group aims to determine who asked for the books to be removed, what the policies are around book removal, what community input was used in making the decision, as well as direct messages between school board members and administration on the topic of removing books. “We want to find out the real reasons, not just the reasons that are expressed in official records of the decision,” said Muth.
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