Banning Books Is a Bad Idea

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During the first half of the past school year, there were a reported 1,477 instances of individual books being banned by school boards, administrators, teachers or politicians in the United States. The overwhelming majority of targeted books were by and about people of color and LGBTQ individuals.

Book-banning campaigns have been most prevalent in Texas, Florida, Missouri, Utah and South Carolina, but it is Florida and the headline-grabbing efforts of Ron DeSantis, the state’s governor and Republican presidential wannabe, that has attracted the most attention and reaction.

States like Florida have passed laws that outline what constitutes appropriate reading material for children. Once those laws are passed, vigilante-like campaigns are pursued by school reviewers and self-appointed activist crusaders who seek to identify and remove any materials they feel violates the law’s intent. Banned books are often described as pornographic or otherwise inappropriate, but are more likely targeted because they deal with themes that make reviewers uncomfortable.

One recent example involves a children’s book called “And Tango Makes Three,” about a penguin family with two fathers. It was banned by the Lake County, Fla., school district. The picture book, which is aimed at children ages 4 to 8, has won several awards. It has also been banned or restricted in several school districts around the country after parents and residents objected to the book’s depiction of a family with same-sex penguin parents.

In response to the ban, a group of students and the authors of the book sued the school district and the state’s board of education in federal court, challenging the constitutionality of the ban, arguing that its provisions are “vague and overbroad” and asserting that its penalties were overly stringent, as educators who knowingly violate the law could lose their teaching license.

The suit, which was filed last week, claims that the book was targeted on ideological grounds because of Florida’s much-ballyhooed Parental Rights in Education Law (deridingly referred to as the “Don’t Say Gay” law,) that bars school instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation. That law originally applied to students in kindergarten through third grade but was recently extended to apply to prekindergarten through eighth grade.

The Florida case raises similar arguments to those advanced by literary groups, free-speech advocates, publishers, authors and concerned parents who are seeking to overturn book bans through the courts and through legislation. That effort seems to be gaining traction. Earlier this month, Illinois became the first state to prohibit the broad banning of books by requiring public libraries to adopt policies that stop them from removing books because of “partisan or doctrinal disapproval.”

The “Tango” book is a good test case. It is based on a true story of a pair of male penguins at the Central Park Zoo in New York City who incubated and hatched a chick. Zookeepers named the chick Tango. The book’s authors, a writer and a psychologist, wrote their book after reading about the real-life penguins. In addition to being factually accurate, Tango is not pornographic or obscene. It just tells a story that anti-gay activists don’t want to be told.

That’s hardly a reason to ban a book.

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