Illinois is once again a haven amid a sea of restrictive Midwestern states — this time over intellectual freedom and protections around keeping library books on shelves.
As Illinois became the first state to make a public stand against book bans, many neighboring states are making statements in the reverse: They plan to make it easier for books to be challenged and the consequences for pushing back against such restrictions more severe.
In April, Missouri cut libraries out of its budget because two library groups challenged a new Missouri law that made it a misdemeanor for librarians and educators to give students access to books deemed sexually explicit.
Meanwhile, in Iowa this summer, a school district used the AI chatbot ChatGPT to find and then ban books after Gov. Kim Reynolds signed legislation “prohibiting instruction related to gender identity and sexual orientation.”
In May, Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb of Indiana signed a bill that requires schools to publish their book catalogs online so that community members can more easily review which books they would like to challenge.
And in Wisconsin, Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, has publicly argued against bills proposed by the state’s Republican legislators — one of which would prosecute school staff. However, the state has not yet passed the numerous bills that have been introduced.
Although Illinois has protections that surrounding states do not have, anti-censorship advocates are urging Illinoisians to also be vigilant and vocal in their support against these efforts, as they are often politically motivated and aimed at removing access to books about underrepresented groups.
And, they argue, the state’s bubble of protection could pop with any change in leadership.
The issue continues to grow nationwide. Book challenges nearly doubled in the U.S. in 2022, with the majority of those books written by and about people of color or LGBTQIA+ people.
“As citizens, we all have to speak up and make it understood to our elected officials that we won’t tolerate it and we want policies in place that prevent that, but to support individuals whose right to read and other states is being infringed, to support the librarians who are being attacked for providing books to their community,” said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, the American Library Association’s director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom. “We have to come together and provide support for those folks.”
Book challenges “anywhere, anytime, to anyone”
Mark Letcher an associate professor and director of English and Secondary Education at Lewis University in Romeoville, Ill., and an Indiana resident, says even though Illinois is a leader in anti-book-banning legislation, “book challenges can still happen pretty much anywhere, anytime, to anyone.”
“It’s just that over here, in Indiana, we are seeing a lot more concentrated legislative efforts to make it easier for individuals or groups to basically force removal of books from school or library shelves,” Letcher added.
Educators and librarians face very strict penalties, including substantial fines and even jail time, if they are deemed in violation of this Indiana law, Letcher said. As a member of the National Council of Teachers of English’s Standing Committee Against Censorship, he said that supporting advocacy organizations that help them can be essential.
“From the teachers’ and librarians’ perspective, I know that when a book gets challenged, it can be a very frightening and a very isolating experience,” Letcher said. “You feel like you’re pretty much on your own against the world and you’re not quite sure who has your back.”
Anderson Bookshop marketing manager Kerry Clemm, who runs the company’s anti-censorship efforts, said awareness is a way to support the fight against book bans as a whole.
“Because we’re in a position where bans aren’t happening here [in Illinois], the best thing we can do is spread information,” Clemm said. “It is just critical that the information that we’re spreading … is correct and it comes from legitimate news sources.”
Clemm said Banned Books Week, which the ALA launched in 1982, has been a way for the literary community to support free access to books. But now, as challenges and bans have exponentially increased in recent years, it’s becoming more imperative to amplify, fact-check and cite information about updates from all over the country.
“[If] these book removal campaigns were to come at any of our school districts or our public libraries, they have the support of the state right now,” she said. “So we do live in a nice little bubble. But one thing that I keep reminding people is that elections have consequences, and our bubble could pop at any rate.”
Deciding access for everyone
Angelina Cicero, head of the English department at a public school in Wisconsin, said said students and their families have the right to opt out of reading any book, for any reason.
“I believe — and I think most educators believe, I think most librarians believe — that parents have every right to decide what their own children have access to and read,” she said. “That is radically different from one parent, from one viewpoint, religious perspective, political perspective or personal cultural perspective, saying that they have a right to decide what anybody else’s child has the right to have access to.”
Arionne Nettles is a lecturer and director of audio journalism programming at Northwestern University’s Medill School. Follow her @arionnenettles.