A Fast-Growing Network of Conservative Groups Is Fueling a Surge in Book Bans

The Keller Independent School District, just outside of Dallas, passed a new rule in November: It banned books from its libraries that include the concept of gender fluidity.

The change was pushed by three new school board members, elected in May with support from Patriot Mobile, a self-described Christian cellphone carrier. Through its political action committee, Patriot Mobile poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into Texas school board races to promote candidates with conservative views on race, gender and sexuality — including on which books children can access at school.

Traditionally, debates over what books are appropriate for school libraries have taken place between a concerned parent and a librarian or administrator, and resulted in a single title or a few books being re-evaluated, and either removed or returned to shelves.

But recently, the issue has been supercharged by a rapidly growing and increasingly influential constellation of conservative groups. The organizations frequently describe themselves as defending parental rights. Some are new and others are longstanding, but with a recent focus on books. Some work at the district and state level, others have national reach. And over the past two years or so, they have grown vastly more organized, interconnected, well funded — and effective.

The groups have pursued their goals by becoming heavily involved in local and state politics, where Republican efforts have largely outmatched liberal organizations in many states for years. They have created political action committees, funded campaigns, endorsed candidates and packed school boards, helping to fuel a surge in challenges to individual books and to drive changes in the rules governing what books are available to children.

“This is not about banning books, it’s about protecting the innocence of our children,” said Keith Flaugh, one of the founders of Florida Citizens Alliance, a conservative group focused on education, “and letting the parents decide what the child gets rather than having government schools indoctrinate our kids.”

The materials the groups object to are often described in policies and legislation as sensitive, inappropriate or pornographic. In practice, the books most frequently targeted for removal have been by or about Black or L.G.B.T.Q. people, according to the American Library Association.

In Texas, 11 school board candidates backed by Patriot Mobile Action, the political action committee formed by the cellphone company, won in four districts this year, including Keller. The committee’s aim is to eliminate “critical race theory” and “L.G.B.T.Q. indoctrination” from schools, Leigh Wambsganss, its executive director, said on Steve Bannon’s show, “War Room.”

Even books without sexual content can be problematic if they include L.G.B.T.Q. characters, because they are “sexualizing children,” she said: “It is normalizing a lifestyle that is a sexual choice.”

“Those kinds of lifestyles,” she added, shouldn’t “be forced down the throats of families who don’t agree.”

The Push to Ban Books Across America

Parents, activists, school board officials and lawmakers are increasingly contesting children’s access to books.

  • Nationwide Efforts: Amid growing polarization, books exploring racial and social issues are drawing fire in different parts of the United States.
  • Growing Rapidly: Attempts to ban books are accelerating at a rate never seen since tracking began more than 20 years ago, according to a report from the American Library Association.
  • Librarians Under Attack: As book bans explode across the country, librarians find themselves on the front lines of an acrimonious culture war, with their careers and reputations at risk.
  • Case Dismissed: A judge in Virginia dismissed an attempt to block Barnes & Noble and other bookstores from selling to minors two books that contained sexual content.

By August, about three months after the new members were seated, the Keller school board had restricted or prohibited books containing profanity, violence, sex scenes or nudity. These changes resulted in the removal of at least 20 books from the district’s schools, including Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye,” Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” and several young adult novels with L.G.B.T.Q. characters, like Adam Silvera’s “More Happy Than Not.”

In November, the board added the ban on books that refer to gender fluidity. Laney Hawes, who has four children in Keller schools, was there that day. She and some other parents felt outflanked, she said, by deep-pocketed organizations whose actions can change longstanding policies in a matter of months.

“They ran on the campaign of, ‘We’re going to get pornography and sexually explicit books out of our school libraries,’” Ms. Hawes said. “The parents didn’t have a PAC. We couldn’t compete with these people.”

Individuals and groups opposing book restrictions say crafting a national response is difficult, since policies are set locally. But some are pushing back. The restrictions, said Emerson Sykes, a First Amendment litigator for the American Civil Liberties Union, infringe on students’ “right to access a broad range of material without political censorship.”

The A.C.L.U and other advocacy groups filed a federal civil rights complaint against the Keller school district, arguing that banning books about gender fluidity creates “a pervasively hostile atmosphere for L.G.B.T.Q.+ students.”

Librarians in Texas formed Freadom Fighters, an organization that offers guidance to librarians on handling book challenges. In Florida, parents who oppose book banning formed the Freedom to Read Project, which urges its members to attend board meetings and tracks the work of groups like Florida Citizens Alliance.

“We’re trying to document the censorship movement,” said Stephana Ferrell, one of the founders of Freedom to Read. “They don’t want to use the word ‘ban.’ Instead they remove, relocate, restrict — all these other words that aren’t ‘ban.’ But it’s a ban.”

The Florida Freedom to Read Project, which opposes restrictions on reading, urges members to attend school board meetings. From left, Jen Cousins, Raegan Miller and Stephana Ferrell.Credit…Todd Anderson for The New York Times

According to a recent report from the free speech organization PEN America, there are at least 50 groups across the country working to remove books they object to from libraries. Some have seen explosive growth recently: Of the 300 chapters that PEN tracked, 73 percent were formed after 2020.

The growth comes, in part, from the rise of “parental rights” organizations during the pandemic. Formed to fight Covid restrictions in schools, some groups adopted a broader conservative agenda focused on opposing instruction on race, gender and sexuality, and on removing books they regard as inappropriate.

Other groups, like Florida Citizens Alliance, have been around for years. Established in 2013, the alliance has longstanding ties to Gov. Ron DeSantis: Its co-founders, Mr. Flaugh and Pastor Rick Stevens, served on the DeSantis transition committee. The group also has partnerships with over 100 other groups, including Moms for Liberty and Americans for Prosperity Florida, a local branch of a national group founded by the billionaires Charles and David Koch.

Five years ago, Mr. Flaugh and Pastor Stevens helped draft a bill that gave all county residents, not just parents, the power to challenge a book in a school district. Opponents say it contributed to waves of book challenges. The bill’s supporters, however, say local tax dollars fund the school system, so all residents have a right to influence how that money is spent.

“They’re the ones that pay for it,” said Representative Byron Donalds, who co-sponsored the bill when he was in the Florida Legislature.

In its 2021 “Porn in Schools Report,” Florida Citizens Alliance lists books that they say contain “indecent and offensive material” — including “And Tango Makes Three,” about two male penguins who adopt a baby penguin.

The alliance has a network of more than 250,000 people it can mobilize to flood politicians with letters. Referred to by Mr. Flaugh as “the back office,” this network sprang into action this year to support a bill that requires Florida districts to report all book objections to the state. The state will then create a list of challenged titles and distribute it to districts “for consideration in their selection procedures.”

The Florida Board of Education said it was up to districts to develop “a process for removing or limiting access to specific books,” but did not answer questions about how districts should interpret the list. Some librarians and parents are concerned it will have a chilling effect.

“This list could be seen as a warning, like ‘Don’t even bother with these books,’” said Michelle Jarrett, the library media supervisor for the School District of Osceola County. “Librarians across the state are already self-censoring for fear of retribution, and asking themselves, ‘Am I ready to defend this book, is this worth the fight?’”

Some of the new groups have become effective political power brokers. Moms for Liberty was founded in Florida in January 2021; it now has 250 chapters in 42 states, and ties to the state Republican Party and to legacy conservative organizations like the Leadership Institute and the Heritage Foundation.

This summer, Governor DeSantis appeared at Moms for Liberty’s national summit in Tampa, where he denounced “woke gender ideology” in schools and argued that parents have the right to object to “explicit” books in school libraries. The summit also drew other prominent political figures from the right, including Senator Rick Scott of Florida and the Trump administration cabinet members Ben Carson and Betsy DeVos. In her remarks, Ms. DeVos called for dismantling the Department of Education, which she used to run.

Moms for Liberty has created a political action committee in Florida, and won over influential conservative donors such as Julie Fancelli, heir to the Publix supermarket fortune. This summer, she gave the committee $50,000.

The group endorsed more than 500 school board candidates across the country this year. Candidates they backed won 272 seats, and are now the majority in more than a dozen districts, in states including North and South Carolina, Indiana, New Jersey and Florida, according to the organization. In Berkeley County, S.C., where candidates they supported won six seats, the new board banned teaching “critical race theory” — an analytical framework that has been adopted by conservative activists as a broad term for various teachings about race — and voted to form a committee to evaluate books and remove those with “inappropriate sexual/pornographic content.”

Korrin Dickson, left, and Nichole Mason, at a meeting of Utah Parents United.

Credit…Niki Chan Wylie for The New York Times

An organization called Utah Parents United, created to fight Covid restrictions in 2020, has broadened its agenda to shaping school curriculums and library collections. This year, Utah Parents formed a political action committee and lobbied for a bill banning “sensitive materials” in schools, including books that could be viewed as “pornographic or indecent.”

The group’s curriculum director, Brooke Stephens, gave presentations to Utah lawmakers about the proposed bill, sharing as examples of books to be removed “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” a memoir about growing up Black and queer that includes a depiction of sexual assault, and “Gender Queer,” a memoir about being nonbinary that includes some sexually explicit scenes.

Ms. Stephens now argues that the law needs to be more strictly enforced, and filed complaints with the sheriff’s department demanding the removal of 47 books from the Davis School District.

“Schools have to abide by the criminal code,” she said.

After the law was passed, the number of book challenges began to rise, with the bulk of complaints coming from a small number of people, said Mark Peterson, a spokesman for the Utah Department of Education. In one school district, Alpine, 49 books were challenged, and 22 were removed. Among them: “All Boys Aren’t Blue” and “Gender Queer.”

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