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Book bans sweeping the US show it’s not OK to be a unicorn

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Concerned parents in the Buckeye Valley School District in Ohio can rest assured this week. District officials recently intervened to prevent their children from hearing author Jason Tharp read his book “It’s Okay to Be A Unicorn” during a school visit. Illustrated with bright colors and rainbows, the story is an imaginative jaunt about a unicorn pretending to be a horse who has to summon the courage to reveal his true identity. 

The book, ostensibly about accepting our true identities and not being afraid of standing out, was prohibited after a single parent complained that the book and author had a “gay agenda.” In response, the superintendent said the district wanted to “vet” the tale a little more. One teacher said instructors were told to remove students’ artwork related to the book from school walls, too.

This is public schooling in 2022. 

In any ordinary academic year, a school district would be ridiculed for banning a children’s book about a unicorn. But Buckeye Valley’s absurd prohibition fits a pattern that has lately become all too common. Across the country, school leaders are making knee-jerk decisions to ban books, disinvite authors and punish educators, often to appease local parents or politicians — or both. District after district is prioritizing the complaints of the few over the education of the many.

In Williamson County, Tenn., a single parent’s complaint about the book “An ABC of Equality” led the district to suspend access for all families of K-5 students to Epic, an online library app featuring 40,000 books. In Pitt County, N.C., one parent’s complaint led educators to suspend the teaching of five books, including “All American Boys”, “To Kill A Mockingbird”, “Forged by Fire” and “Night”. Elsewhere, a single parent’s objection led one North Carolina principal to cancel plans to teach “Dear Martin” by bestselling author Nic Stone. Sixteen books in Polk County, Fla., were yanked from the library and placed in “quarantine” after a complaint there. 

The list goes on. Censoriousness is snowballing, and school leaders are acting out of fear — or in some cases malice — to suppress literature.

We can’t treat this alarming trend like business as usual. The consequences are already devastating. Students are being deprived of opportunities to read books and access information, to become better-informed citizens in our pluralistic and diverse society. The decision to restrict Tharp’s book may appear misguided and callous but it also reveals a chilling climate spreading in public schools that is being driven by fear rather than expertise, knowledge or curiosity. 

The point isn’t that parents should have no means of lodging these complaints or playing a role in curricular decisions. But there are formal processes for parents to file complaints and for review committees to consider them. Yet almost everywhere, it seems, these processes are being disregarded. 

A recent report from PEN America found that of 1,500 book bans in the past nine months, 98 percent have involved departures from established best practices regarding how books and instructional materials should be challenged in schools and libraries. Such best practices, as outlined by the National Coalition Against Censorship and the American Library Association, have been designed to provide a kind of due process for book removals, to prevent school leaders and boards from swooping in and removing books at the slightest complaint, in an ad hoc or irregular manner. 

These processes stem from existing jurisprudence, which makes clear that students have First Amendment rights in schools, and therefore, that book removals should not be based on a desire to prohibit particular content or viewpoints — or, in other words, enacted at the drop of a hat just because a single parent feels a book might be “gay”. Following established, regular procedures that involve community consultation is the best way to protect against such potential violations of students’ rights.

In the current political climate, though, such deliberative processes are hard to come by. State legislators have called for investigations into books in school libraries and worked to pass educational gag orders targeting discussions of racism, history and LGBTQ+ identities in classrooms. Others have promoted bills championing parents’ rights to challenge school materials. School leaders in many states are taking a political risk by doing anything other than acquiescing to parents’ demands. They’re buckling at the whiff of controversy, bending public education away from any possible risk or anything taboo to cater to a more narrow, reserved horizon. And they’re limiting students’ educational opportunities in the process.

This does not have to be how things go, that politicians and aggrieved parents whittle away at what is taught and accessed in schools until all that’s left is a lowest common denominator form of education. Instead, parents and citizens can demand that school administrators follow proper policies and processes. They can engage in school board meetings and make clear that they stand against book banning. They can attest to the power of choice, the freedom to read, learn, and think and the obligation of schools to present a rich array of books that are of interest to any student — not just those that a vocal group of parents deems acceptable.

Unless we take action to stop these bans from spreading, students may be forced to draw the unfortunate conclusion that it is simply not okay to be a unicorn.

Jonathan Friedman is the director of free expression and education at the free-speech organization PEN America.

Tags Book bans Censorship in the United States parents rights Politics of the United States

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