By Nora Pelizzari
Every generation of Americans faces new and significant challenges to free expression.” So begins the mission statement of the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC). For almost half a century, NCAC has acted as a first responder to protect this freedom, as both a fundamental human right and a keystone of democracy in the ever-changing American nation.
It is that depth of experience and singular, non-partisan focus on free expression that gives credibility to NCAC’s statement that the current wave of book challenges and removals in America’s schools is nothing short of a coordinated political attack. Book challenges in schools are nothing new, but the current censorship crisis poses a true threat to America’s entire education system. NCAC hopes that a sharpened focus on students’ voices can help change the narrative and inspire a new generation of free-speech advocates.
A coalition of more than 50 national nonprofits, NCAC was formed by a group of activists affiliated with the American Civil Liberties Union in response to the 1973 Supreme Court decision in Miller v. California, which narrowed First Amendment protections for sexual expression and opened the door to obscenity prosecutions.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State is a member of the coalition alongside literary, artistic, religious, educational, professional, labor and civil-liberties groups. The diversity of its membership strengthens NCAC’s work toward an American society that understands, values, defends and vigorously exercises free expression in a just, egalitarian, diverse and inclusive democracy. Coalition members agree that “In a pluralistic society it would be impossible for all people at all times to agree on the value of all ideas; and fatal to moral, artistic and intellectual growth if they did.”
While the participating organizations may approach their defense of free expression differently, they are “united in the conviction that censorship of what we see and hear and read constitutes an unacceptable dictatorship over our minds and a dangerous opening to religious, political, artistic, and intellectual repression.”
In a typical year, the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom tracks between 300 and 400 challenges to books and instructional materials in schools and libraries. Between Sept. 1 and Dec. 1 of 2021, they recorded 330 such cases. Challenges to books in schools and libraries are not a red-state/blue-state issue. As NCAC’s Youth Censorship Database shows, challenges to students’ free expression – including book removals, press censorship, drama and art and student protest rights – cross all political lines. However, most of the books that are currently being attacked address concerns of groups previously underrepresented in libraries and school curricula: books about lived experiences of racism or of growing up LGBTQIA and experiencing bias, discrimination, hate and even violence.
NCAC led a statement in late 2021 labeling the current wave of school book removals as a coordinated political attack and much more dangerous than typical disagreements over books in schools. Over 100 organizations, as well as 20 publishers, 90 bookstores and nearly 800 individuals signed on to express their deep concern about this sudden rise in censorship and its impact on education, the rights of students, and freedom of expression.
Much of the debate this year has centered on the idea of parents’ rights to shape their children’s education. But most communities have developed policies for both handling book challenges and allowing parents to influence their own children’s reading without infringing on the rights of other students.
In practice, this means that parents who disagree with particular content in a classroom or library can request special accommodation – an alternative assignment or restrictions on library-book access, for example – for their own children, but they cannot dictate what all students in a school, district or state are allowed to learn or read. The law clearly prohibits much of what is happening today: censoring school libraries, removing books – and entire reading lists – based on disagreement with viewpoint and without any review of their educational or literary merit. Some would-be censors have gone even further, threatening teachers, school librarians, authors and school board members with criminal charges and even violence for allowing students access to books.
Traditional supporters of free speech increasingly defend only the rights of those who share their points of view. But students across the country are standing up for their rights at school board meetings with peaceful protests, via online petitions and in the news media. NCAC’s latest project, under the banner of its longstanding Youth Free Expression Program, will help mobilize a generation of free-speech defenders by connecting current student activism with deeper principles of free expression.
The Student Advocates for Speech will form a network of high school clubs to empower the next generation of leaders to advocate for free expression, to fight for their own free-speech rights as well as the rights of those they disagree with, and to promote the essential principles of free expression. Students offer unique and valuable perspectives on today’s current issues as both the voices of today’s youth and the voices of future leaders. NCAC is currently accepting applications for the first cohort of students to set up clubs in their high schools in fall 2022. (Learn more at ncac.org/SAS.)
Implicit in the wording of the First Amendment is a guarantee that no individual, group of individuals, legislator, community member or even school board member can dictate what public school students are allowed to read based on their own personal beliefs or political viewpoint. It is freedom of expression that ensures that we can meet the challenges of a changing world. That freedom is critical for the students who will lead America in the years ahead. We must fight to defend it.
Nora Pelizzari is director of communications for the National Coalition Against Cen- sorship (www. ncac.org) in New York City. To report an instance of censorship, visit ncac.org/report-censor ship.