Samantha Dietel

WASHINGTON (States Newsroom) — U.S. senators at a committee hearing Tuesday discussed the consequences of book bans and parents’ desire to control what their kids read — though they also acknowledged it’s not an issue for Congress to settle.

The Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony about book bans, focusing on how censorship limits liberty and literature. The hearing occurred amid an increase in book challenges across the nation.

Democrats’ witnesses included Illinois Secretary of State Alexi Giannoulias; Emily Knox, an associate professor at the University of Illinois and board president at the National Coalition Against Censorship; and Cameron Samuels, a Brandeis University student and co-founder of Students Engaged in Advancing Texas. SEAT is a nonprofit organization with a mission to increase “youth visibility in policymaking,” according to its website.

Max Eden, a research fellow at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute and Nicole Neily, president at Parents Defending Education, testified as minority witnesses. Parents Defending Education is a conservative nonprofit organization “fighting indoctrination in the classroom,” according to its website.

PEN America reported that many recent book challenges have happened in Texas, Missouri, Utah, Florida and South Carolina.

The American Library Association reported in April that last year, 2,571 books were targeted for censorship, which is a 38% increase from the 1,858 books challenged in 2021. Most of these targeted books “were written by or about members of the LGBTQIA+ community or by and about Black people, indigenous people and people of color,” according to the report.

In his testimony, Giannoulias said the following American classics were challenged last year:

  • George Orwell’s “1984”
  • Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”
  • J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye”
  • Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple”
  • Khaled Hosseini’s “The Kite Runner”
  • John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men”
  • Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”

Senate role in book bans?

Multiple U.S. senators said the federal government is limited in its ability to address or restrict book banning.

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, the ranking minority member and a South Carolina Republican, said parents should advocate for their children and that it is not his role as a senator to have control over book bans.

“What is our role here?” Graham said. “What am I supposed to do? Am I supposed to take over every school board in the country and veto their decisions about what books go into public schools?”

U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, a Democrat from New Jersey, said he agreed with Graham that he didn’t “see much Congress can do.” Booker said there will not be federal laws addressing book bans, but it is still important to discuss these issues.

“In a diverse democracy, it is so necessary that we know each other, that we see each other, that we understand each other,” Booker said. “That’s what makes us stronger.”

Booker asked Knox if giving people a “sanitized version of American history” is dangerous. Knox said “absolutely,” and that “we gain nothing by not telling children the truth of genocide, slavery and Jim Crow.”

“It may be painful, but it is still the truth,” Knox said. “It must be said.”

Parental control debate

Giannoulias, who helped Illinois to become the first state to outlaw book banning, said libraries in Illinois are not eligible for state-funded grants if they ban books.

He said that banning books limits the nation’s marketplace of ideas and prevents children from gaining new perspectives.

“We will be banning knowledge, culture, empathy, understanding, and diverse and differing worldviews,” Giannoulias said.

Giannoulias said one parent with a certain worldview should not be allowed to determine what books should be in libraries. Giannoulias said that instead, parents should keep an eye on what their own children are reading.

“I have three young daughters, and there are some books and titles that my wife and I don’t feel are age appropriate for them,” Giannoulias said. “But I could never imagine a world where I would tell another family what books their kids should or should not be allowed to read.”

Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat who chairs the committee, said he agreed with Giannoulias that the first responsibility lies with parents.

Neily, however, said parents across the country are ridiculed or shamed for speaking out against books that they feel are inappropriate for their children.

Knox said it is important to remember that changes to library collections are collective decisions.

Graham praised Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican running for the presidential nomination, because “he decided to step in and stop what he thought was abusive from his point of view.”

In March, DeSantis signed legislation to increase parental control over what books are available to children in school libraries.

At the end of the hearing, U.S. Sen. John Kennedy, a Louisiana Republican, read passages from both “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe and “All Boys Aren’t Blue” by George M. Johnson, which are the two most challenged books of 2022, according to the ALA.

Both books have been flagged for LGBTQ+ content and sexually explicit content.

Kennedy asked Giannoulias to clarify whether only libraries should decide whether those books should be available to children.

Giannoulias said no, and that “we’re not advocating for kids to read porn.” He said individual parents should not be allowed to make decisions about where to draw the line for an entire community, and referenced Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” as an example.

“Parents absolutely have a say” when it comes to their own children, Giannoulias said.