The Kanawha County Library’s display for Banned Books Week in Charleston, W.Va., on Monday, Oct. 2, 2023. (Leann Ray | West Virginia Watch)
It’s tempting to think of the so-called Kanawha Textbook Wars as a relic from the past, but this Banned Books Week, we should ask ourselves just how far we’ve come since 1974.
That year, pro-censorship forces descended on the Kanawha Valley to gin up outrage over multicultural textbooks in public schools. Buses were shot, the KKK marched on the Capitol, a school was bombed, and a protester was shot in the chest.
But don’t let the black-and-white images of those turbulent times fool you — the right to read what we want and learn about our world is still under assault. The pro-censorship side is just getting started and it has some familiar allies.
The ironically named Moms for Liberty might not be literally burning books, but they are trying to ban and restrict those who don’t conform to their worldview. Among their financial backers are the Heritage Foundation, the same group that peddled misinformation in its campaign against Kanawha County’s textbooks in the 1970s and has made “critical race theory” a household term for all the wrong reasons.
Heritage Foundation slammed “secular humanism,” a term used to undermine any worldviews that question the Christian values asserted by protesters. Organizers disseminated misinformation pamphlets across rural parts of the county that included pictures of genitalia taken from unrelated books and framed as being part of the new “humanist” curriculum.
Last legislative session, a local group set up a table in the Capitol with a large sign saying “Kid Porn in West Virginia Schools?” The group also circulated a list of books they wanted banned from classrooms. The list included biographies of civil rights icon Ruby Bridges, youth climate activist Greta Thunberg, late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and others. None of the titles were pornographic.
Since then, the same group has been attending Kanawha School Board meetings to, among other things, insist that books be restricted on the county level.
If such outright censorship again takes root in West Virginia, it will only further disadvantage West Virginia students.
A future diplomat might not have their interest in world politics sparked because some adult hates China. How many kids might not learn about STI prevention because they were denied a book deemed too controversial for talking about sex? Many will be deprived of the rare opportunity of seeing and hearing a person that looks or thinks like them.
At best, denying kids access to books puts them at a disadvantage with other youth across the country. At worst, it drives exclusion and isolation of historically excluded communities.
Americans strongly oppose book bans. A recent study by UChicago Harris/AP-NORC found just 12 percent of Americans support banning books over “divisive topics.”
But in dealing with this vocal minority, otherwise well-meaning school board members sometimes feel the need to meet them in the middle. The “compromise” position is often that schools should have a duty to inform parents about every book a student picks up.
In extreme circumstances, this can be downright dangerous. Students may be looking for information on sexual orientation, gender identity or sexual abuse that could subject them to harm if discovered. In less extreme circumstances, students may still be subjected to scorn and derision, or discouraged from pursuing their interests.
None of this is to say that parents should not be involved and cannot set limits for their own children. But if a child does not want their parents to know what they are reading, there is likely a good reason. Legislators should tread lightly in these situations.
Unfortunately, some are all too eager to back censorship in an effort to appeal to the recent moral panic. As we enter the 2024 primary season, we will see many more aspiring politicians clinging to this rhetoric.
It is up to us, as voters, to spot the political opportunists who will exploit fear and anger. We should fight censorship every time it rears its ugly head. The American Civil Liberties Union has been doing just that since our founding in the 1920s.
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