Conservatives Are Banning Books in America, Not Liberals

For all we hear from conservatives about liberals’ censoriousness, data newly released by the American Library Association is a reminder that the overwhelming majority of book-banning campaigns come from the Right.

Students studying in a school library, United States, circa 1960. (FPG / Archive Photos / Getty Images)

In the depths of the McCarthy era, the American Library Association (ALA) released an eloquent statement in defense of intellectual freedom and free expression called “The Freedom to Read.” Subsequently updated and endorsed by a host of other organizations, the current version begins:

The freedom to read is essential to our democracy. It is continuously under attack. Private groups and public authorities in various parts of the country are working to remove or limit access to reading materials, to censor content in schools, to label “controversial” views, to distribute lists of “objectionable” books or authors, and to purge libraries. These actions apparently rise from a view that our national tradition of free expression is no longer valid; that censorship and suppression are needed to counter threats to safety or national security, as well as to avoid the subversion of politics and the corruption of morals. We, as individuals devoted to reading and as librarians and publishers responsible for disseminating ideas, wish to assert the public interest in the preservation of the freedom to read.

Then and now, the ALA’s statement gets at a deep and important truth. Coordinated efforts to target particular books or limit their reach have long been a canary in the coal mine for creeping censorship and authoritarianism — a reality as concerning in 2023 as it was during the McCarthy era. Amid the torrential discourse of today’s culture war, however, it’s easy to get a mistaken impression about where such efforts are really coming from.

For over two decades, the ALA has been compiling data about attempted bans in public and school libraries. Its newly released findings for 2022 suggest a growing appetite for censorship across the United States. The organization tracked a record 1,269 demands to censor library books and resources last year — an increase of 38 percent from 2021.

A demand, as the director of ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom Deborah Caldwell-Stone puts it, is an attempt “to remove a book from a library’s collection so that no one else can read it.” Of the reported challenges, about 60 percent were aimed at materials in school libraries, with the remainder targeting those in public libraries.

Alarming as it is, the ALA’s top-line number actually understates the problem. Most of the registered 1,269 demands involved multiple titles, with four in ten taking aim at over a hundred books. (Before 2021, by contrast, the organization notes that “the vast majority of challenges to library resources only sought to remove or restrict access to a single book.”) Such efforts appear to be the result of well-organized campaigns rather than some spontaneous surge in citizen or parental concern.

In recent years, some liberals have attempted to remove particular books from libraries or school curricula, a few of them successfully — most often because they contain racist language or imagery. But organizations like the ALA and PEN who monitor book challenges and censorship are absolutely categorical that such examples are dwarfed by those originating from the Right. Conservatives are banning books in America, not liberals.

While the ALA has yet to release its annual list of the top ten banned books for 2022, we need only glance at its findings from the previous year for a clue about the kinds of titles that will almost certainly be included. Overwhelmingly, the ALA’s 2021 list featured books containing LGBTQ-themed content or material some consider sexually explicit. As Caldwell-Stone told MSNBC earlier this month, these developments are overwhelmingly the product of conservative intolerance rather than liberal censoriousness:

It’s just reflective of what we’re seeing in the numbers this year. It’s no longer a conversation between an educator and a librarian and a parent about a book the parent has concerns about. We’re seeing organized political attacks on our libraries and on our school libraries, intending to limit books to what is politically approved, morally approved, that fits the narrow agenda of the groups that are bringing these challenges. Make no mistake about it: they’ve got lists of bad books. You can go to social media, you can go to their websites, and what you find are lists of disapproved books. . . . Someone will show up at the board meeting with a list of books they haven’t read, haven’t seen, haven’t put in context, and demand their removal because they don’t fit someone’s agenda about being gay [or] being black.

It’s fair to be concerned about the way some liberals have come to think about teaching books that contain dated or offensive language, or to take issue with the way some publishers are now opting to sanitize old titles. When it comes to schools, there can also be reasonable disagreement about what is age appropriate or best suited for inclusion in a particular curriculum. But even if you do have such concerns, it’s a fact that the vast majority of efforts aimed at removing books from America’s library systems are the result of campaigns by organized conservative groups rather than progressive activists or oversensitive college students.

In this respect, they are ripples in a much larger wave of rightwing intolerance that is currently rolling across the country, usually under the same fraudulent aegis of protecting the young from a narrow ideological agenda. Trying to get books removed from library shelves clearly does the opposite — and should be met with full-throated opposition from anyone who believes in democracy, intellectual openness, and freedom of expression.