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Banned Books & the Law

To kick off Banned Books Week, the Authors Guild presented a webinar on Banned Books and the Law featuring Guild general counsel Cheryl Davis and Heather Fleming, founder of the Missouri Equity Education Partnership. The rich discussion covered several key points that impact writers and readers alike:

New Legislation Is Facilitating Bans and Putting Increased Pressure on Authors

We discussed new laws in Arkansas, which would bar author’s books from being made accessible to minors (an ambiguous term covering the wide span of 7- to 17-year-olds), and Texas, the misnamed “Reader” Act that would require people or entities who want to sell books to Texas schools to rate them in terms of being “sexually explicit” or “sexually relevant.” The Texas law would bar some books from being sold to schools entirely, in addition to putting a target on those authors and books in other jurisdictions. To make the situation even more burdensome, the law would also require booksellers to rate books sold in the past that are still being used in schools.

In addition to these, there are various bills around the country that would hinder authors from selling, displaying, or marketing their books in spaces where a minor might have access to them.

These New Laws Can Have a Chilling Effect on Speech

School librarians in Florida trying to comply with the state’s laws about books in schools are being advised to “err on the side of caution” when making their selections. This means that where there is even a question of controversy or the slightest potential for challenge, a library is unlikely to purchase a book. Untold numbers of books and authors will now not even be considered for school libraries.

The Authors Guild Joined Other Groups to Challenge the Constitutionality of These New Laws

As a result of challenges to these laws, enforcement has been preliminarily enjoined in Arkansas and Texas. Last year, the Guild also filed an amicus curiae (or “friend of the court”) brief in a lawsuit in Virginia Beach in which the petitioner asked the court to find two books “obscene for unrestricted viewing by minors,” which isn’t even a legal standard. Fortunately, that petition was denied, but that doesn’t mean that similar efforts won’t be made in other jurisdictions; in fact, the Virginia petitioner intended as much, saying, “We are in a major fight. Suits like this can be filed all over Virginia. There are dozens of books. Hundreds of schools.”

The Outsized Impact of These Bans on LGBTQIA+ and BIPOC Authors

In an analysis by the Washington Post, 42 percent of the challenged books reviewed had LGBTQIA+ characters or themes, while 28 percent had characters of color or dealt with race. It’s especially sad that students and young readers will be even less able to find stories about their lives and experiences on bookshelves. In Jonathan Evison’s banned book Lawn Boy, the main character asks, “Where are the books about me?” As the Arkansas court said in its recent preliminary injunction decision about the new law, “the lack of clarity seems to have been by design.” It seems like these laws promote the absence of these voices—also “by design.” 

How Authors and Others Can Combat These Efforts  

Heather Fleming listed a variety of ways in which people can speak out, including running for school boards and putting challenged language in context within the overall book, such as by flipping to the next page. Both speakers recommended joining groups such as Unite Against Book Bans and the Authors Guild because authors are stronger together.

Lead-Up to Banned Books Week Activities

Banning Oz: Wicked Writers Discuss Book Challenges

In September, the Authors Guild hosted a webinar titled Banning Oz: Wicked Writers Discuss Book Challenges, during which authors Gregory Maguire and Winnie Holzman examined why their reimaginings of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz have faced censorship despite enormous popularity. For over a century, L. Frank Baum’s Oz books have been banned for alleged subversive content. Maguire’s novel Wicked and Holzman’s Broadway adaptation have faced similar backlash. The authors discussed the cultural significance of Oz and why these stories resonate while provoking calls for censorship. Examining recurring book challenges reveals shifts in attitudes about youth, morality, and authority.

Defending the First Amendment: The Latest Chapters in Book Censorship

On September 14, Authors Guild general counsel Cheryl Davis was a panelist in a Los Angeles Copyright Society webinar entitled Defending the First Amendment: The Latest Chapters in Book Censorship. The other panelists were Maria Pallante, president and CEO of the American Association of Publishers (who also served as moderator), Dave Horowitz, executive director of the Media Coalition, and Laura Lee Prather, the attorney who represented the AG and other parties in a recent Texas lawsuit as well as in other First Amendment litigation. 

The panel started with an introduction by Pallante on the history and importance of copyright law and the First Amendment to our nation’s government and the publishing industry. Horowitz spoke on the development of First Amendment precedents with respect to the free expression rights of students and the legal status of libraries, as well as giving an overview of the Arkansas litigation in which the Authors Guild was a plaintiff. Prather spoke about the recent Texas litigation.

The Guild’s general counsel spoke about how authors have been impacted by book bans and censorship efforts, including:

  • How challenges and legislation not only cause the removal of books from shelves but also act as a disincentive for schools and libraries from purchasing any potentially “controversial” books in the first place;
  • How challenges based on misreading (or failing to read at all) the books in question help perpetuate additional error-filled challenges;
  • How threats of violence and “doxxing” based on misperceptions that authors are pedophiles or pornographers, as well as Amazon and Goodreads reviews making similar accusations, disproportionately impact LGTBQIA+ and BIPOC authors

Find more Banned Books Week events here.

For more info on how to take action, see the Authors Guild’s Stop Book Bans Toolkit and join Unite Against Book Bans.

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