Censorship Crusade: Far-Right Politician, Parents Team Up To Ban Books In Va. Public Schools

Some parents in a Virginia county are upset about a few books on public school summer reading lists – so much so that they’re calling for censorship.

Chesterfield County, which is just south of Richmond, has been besieged for a second-straight year by a group that is clearly under the influence of the Religious Right.

Last year, Shannon Easter and her allies protested the inclusion of multiple titles on the Chesterfield County summer reading lists for middle and high schoolers after Easter consulted materials she found online, which were produced by organizations affiliated with a prominent far-right group: Focus on the Family (FOF).

In 2015, Easter and her allies made enough noise that four books were removed from the summer reading list, even though librarians in the county have noted that the books on the list are merely suggestions to encourage reading – no one is required to read any of them.

Censorship can be dangerous but the Religious Right loves it.

Nonetheless, Easter is at it again this year leading a crusade against books like Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park, Coe Booth’s Tyrell and Walter Dean Myers’ Dope Sick. Each of those books is critically acclaimed, but Easter has called them “pornographic” and claims they’re filled with “vile, vile nasty language,” according to the Chesterfield Observer.

The website “Plugged In,” which is part of FOF’s entertainment arm, says Eleanor and Park alone has 227 instances of profanity and sexuality. The work also happens to revolve around a love story between an Asian boy and a white girl. Surely that plot could have no bearing on Easter’s dislike of the book, could it?

As for Tyrell and Dope Sick, they’re both written by African Americans and feature African American characters. Those details couldn’t have anything to do with Easter’s objections, right?

Unfortunately, Easter’s censorship agenda has attracted at least one powerful ally: Virginia state Sen. Amanda Chase (R-Chesterfield). A Pentecostal Christian originally from Alabama, Chase attended Monacan High School in Chesterfield. She has also been described as “Tea Party-leaning.” Chase waded into the controversy this year, calling the objectionable books “pornographic” and “trash.”

“Most parents, if they actually read excerpts [of these books], would have grave concerns,” Chase told the Observer. “Whenever we start introducing kids to what I would say is explicitly pornographic material, I question the appropriateness of that material, especially when it conflicts with the core values that CCPS puts forward. As a parent, that’s not something that I want my kids reading.”

But Chase went a step further. She said “offensive” books should be removed from libraries.

“I would take them out of the libraries,” Chase said. “Absolutely. If it’s not appropriate, if it’s X-rated material, I don’t want my kids getting their hands on it. They shouldn’t have been purchased in the first place.”

Fortunately, not everyone agrees. A high school librarian who spoke to the Observer anonymously said Eleanor and Park is “just a lovely little story” that should not be banned.  Dope Sick was given an award by the American Library Association in 2010 for luring in reluctant readers. Tyrell was named a “Best Young Adult Novel” by the Los Angeles Times.

Chase, however, fiercely opposes any librarian who would dare disagree with her narrow views.

“If librarians are not recommending books that line up with Chesterfield County Public Schools’ core values, they should be dismissed,” she opined.

In the meantime, the Chesterfield school board is set to discuss the reading list controversy in August.

As for Easter, one might think she’s heavily invested in Chesterfield County Public Schools. But that really isn’t the case. Easter has just one child in the system – her other two kids are home-schooled. While she absolutely has the right to decide what her own children read, she doesn’t have the right to make decisions for other students – certainly not for an entire school district.    

It is of course disturbing that a handful of politicians and parents can team up to alter the plans of an entire school system based on the religious beliefs of a few people. But that is how the Religious Right functions; no issue is too small and no amount of control is seen as trivial when it comes to these would-be theocrats. This is also how the far right takes over public schools. First they come for the summer reading list, then they come for the larger curriculum.

Given what is at stake, religion-based censorship must not be tolerated. If it is, then Chesterfield County might as well turn over control to Easter and Chase right now.  

P.S.: Religious Right censorship is nothing new and Americans United has tracked it for years. If you want to learn more about this topic, start with this and this.