Illustration by Deborah Cantu

Op-Ed: Book Bans and the Fight to Liberate Knowledge

Words by Abigail Vela

Edited by Freddy Jimenez

We’ve heard it a few times now, but why does it truly feel like we are living in the world of Fahrenheit 451, where books are burned (or, in our case, banned) left and right? Knowledge is literally being stripped from school libraries and classrooms, preventing the young minds of tomorrow from ever accessing it. Teacher’s livelihoods are at stake if they try to intervene and do anything about it. That’s what our crumbling education system is facing now and (potentially) for the foreseeable future.

According to PEN America, a nonprofit protecting the freedom of expression, over “4,000 instances of individual books [have been] banned since the fall of 2021.” PEN America’s Index of School Book Bans compiles information on 1,648 titles banned between July 1, 2021, through June 30, 2022. Recent data collected by the American Library Association ranked Texas as the number one state in 2022 to attempt to restrict access 93 times to 2,349 books.

The majority of books being banned are due to claims that they explicitly address and contain LGBTQ+ themes and characters, characters of color, race and racism, and sexual content relating to teen pregnancy, sexual assault, abortion, puberty, and relationships, as well as themes about activism, human rights, religious minorities… and the list goes on.

Let’s (Not) Allow AI to Ban Books

A considerable thing to note is the use of AI infiltrating our education system. As if AI wasn’t already posing a significant enough threat in Hollywood, PEN America reported that a school district in Iowa relied on ChatGPT to determine which books would be banned. 

 

Recently, Iowa passed Senate File 496, which requires school districts to report students who wish to go by different pronouns or names. In addition, SF 496 prohibits districts from teaching subjects relating to gender identity or expression and bans books that contain depictions of sex from their school libraries. 

 

Pat Hamilton, the superintendent of Mason City Schools, noted that the district’s administrators used AI because they “didn’t think they had the time to review each book before the start of the school year.” However, Education Week revealed that the law took effect this year on July 1, “but districts have until January 1, 2024, until the consequences start being enforced.”  

 

Liz Woolery, digital policy lead of PEN America, stated, “The district seems not to have noticed the mounting evidence about the potential for generative AI tools to miss the nuances of context and intent when reviewing content.” This situation goes to show that if we continue to rely heavily on AI to determine what pieces of knowledge stay or go, we will lose our ability to think freely and act critically. 

HB 900 Threatens Knowledge in Texas

A threat closer to home, HB 900, also known as the “sexual rating” law or the READER Act, was set to take effect on September 1. According to Shelf Awareness, “companies that sell to school libraries, librarians, and teachers in Texas have to assign ratings to books concerning their sexual content.” To make matters worse, HB 900 imposes the obligation for booksellers and vendors to submit a list of books they’ve sold and are currently in use in school settings, and issue recalls of “sexually explicit books.” Otherwise, these businesses run the risk of being prohibited from doing business with educational institutions.

 

“I came into this school year reading the news, anticipating the ruling of HB 900 because of the toll it’s going to take on my curriculum and the publishers involved,” Julia Paz Garza, an RGV certified professional educator, expressed, “Our future is in trouble, and it feels like I’m the only one worried about it.” 

 

However, there’s still a glimmer of hope as the fight against HB 900 occurs. Publishers Weekly states that Austin’s BookPeople and Houston’s Blue Willow Bookshop, along with the American Booksellers Association, the Association of American Publishers, the Authors Guild, and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, sued the bill because it “represents an unconstitutional restraint on the freedom to read, and an untenable burden on booksellers.” 

 

As of August 31st, Federal Judge Alan D. Albright barred the law until an official ruling is filed later this week or next. “[However,] it’s already being appealed [by the state] before Albright has filed,” Garza noted. 

RGV Community Speaks Out

Julia-Paz Garza reported the book bans happening throughout the Valley in Removing South Texas One Book at a Time, where she noted how Edinburg CISD was directly affected by these restrictions, specifically banning Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia from the classrooms. 

Garza shared, “Honestly, it’s so concerning to hear about the huge fight on our education taking place. A lot of people think that the Valley won’t get hit with these bans, but that’s just it. Even without the bans, these kids aren’t reading. They themselves aren’t concerned about it because they don’t understand why Animal Farm is such a dangerous book. They can’t see how close we are to Fahrenheit 451. My students, their parents, and my colleagues can’t see that we’re living so closely to the world in The Giver.”

Local Reading Specialist Connie Ramirez states, “Banned books destabilize the curriculum and not just within a single class, but across multiple subjects because it begins by completely shutting out worlds that may be unknown to the student. Banned books allow for fear to be the driving force that dictates a narrow path of thinking.”

 

Orange-red flames in the background as books lie open on a table. What seems like a government hand reaches to take a book.

Ramirez continued, speaking on the catastrophic toll the bans will have on students, “It leaves the curriculum unbalanced because not all learners learn the same, and it forces their thinking to be exclusive by preventing the multitude of avenues for them to be able to think critically and see the world through other perspectives.”

Let’s Liberate Knowledge

Although it feels like we’re living in a dystopian reality, there’s still a chance to change that because the fight to liberate knowledge and free books is not over. Bookshops, community members, librarians, and teachers are making their voices heard. 

 

So what can we do to fight the book bans? 

 

Start by reading the top challenged books of 2022, with the top two (challenged for LGBTQ+ and sexually explicit claims) being Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe and All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison was the third most challenged book in 2022 and the number one book challenged by Texas for depictions of sexual abuse. 

 

Read books banned since 2001 (but don’t stop there). 

 

Promote and join in on Banned Books Week this year on October 1-7, 2023. In fact, coordinate an event around it!

 

Join The Banned Book Club! Launched by The Digital Public Library of America, The Banned Book Club aims to give all readers free access to books banned from libraries across the US through The Palace Project app.

 

Take action by signing petitions and letters to state representatives and school district officials demanding them to #freethebooks.

 

Lastly, Ponte Trucha! Pay attention to legislation threatening our rights, freedom, and expansion of knowledge. As Kennedy Tacket from the Texas Signal insightfully articulated, “Laws like [HB 900] and the rhetoric attacking librarians and teachers creates a chilling effect, where books get banned, challenging and impactful stories aren’t placed on shelves, great educators decide teaching isn’t worth the weight they are forced to carry, and generations of kids get left out, left behind.” 

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