Defend intellectual freedom


hard times

By Dr. Steve Tetreault

In June 2021, the Texas Legislature made national headlines when it passed Bill 3979. This bill prohibits teaching that includes any material that could cause a student to “feel bad about comfortable, guilty, distressed or any other form of psychological distress because of an individual’s race or gender.

Then, in October 2021, a Texas state representative sent a list of 850 books to the state Education Agency with questions about which books were in school libraries and how much money had been spent to buy them. This combination of efforts was seen by many as specifically targeting material featuring non-white, non-heterosexual, and non-male authors.

These actions were followed by an insidious nationwide increase in very loud and dramatic book challenges by community members at local school board meetings. These challenges often use the same wording as each other and focus on the same books, even when they take place half a continent apart.

Attacks usually focus on certain key topics and headlines. One area under attack: books by black or non-white authors, especially those whose content includes a discussion of the experience of being a non-white person in past, present, or future America. Another: books by LGBTQIA+ authors, or books about the experience of being LGBTQIA+ in a heteronormative society.

Many would conclude that these calls to restrict the materials and resources available in schools are an attempt to prevent students from engaging in topics that could offer new insights or challenge systems that have been firmly entrenched for decades or even centuries.

One of the primary functions of public education is to provide students with new knowledge, new perspectives, and new ways of seeing the world. All educators want their students to learn. But many have come to see this mission as dangerous.

An ever-increasing number of legislators are using the question of the appropriateness of school materials to argue that what children are learning in school is dangerous. Texas is once again leading the way, with Governor Greg Abbot pushing to institute a “Bill of Parental Rights” that includes as a measure the permanent revocation of licenses and pension benefits for any educator who is “convicted of providing minors access to pornographic material”. .” In a state where nearly all books not focused on heterosexual cisgender relationships are considered “pornographic,” this is a very troubling law. If you or someone you know hasn’t hosted a reading challenge in their district yet, give it some time.

New Jersey is often seen as firmly entrenched on the “liberal east coast”. So it may come as a surprise to learn that there are currently half a dozen districts where educators and school libraries are challenged by community members — and that number is growing.

This is despite the fact that New Jersey law requires the inclusion of Holocaust and Genocide Studies, LGBTQ+ topics, Diversity and Inclusion, Social-Emotional Learning, African American History and, more recently, the history of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

NJ Student Learning Laws and Standards as Supports

New Jersey has laws and learning standards that require certain topics to be covered in schools. Since 1994, New Jersey has required the inclusion of Holocaust and genocide instruction in the K-12 curriculum. In 2002, the state created the Amistad Commission. His goal is to “[ensure] that the Department of Education and New Jersey public schools implement materials and texts that incorporate the history and contributions of African Americans and descendants of the African Diaspora.

An LGBTQ requirement mandated in 2019 includes the provision that “a school board shall adopt inclusive educational materials that portray the cultural and economic diversity of society, including the political, economic and social contributions of people with disabilities and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, where applicable. The requirement for diversity and inclusion in the curriculum states, in part, that beginning in the 2021-22 school year, all districts must “highlight and promote diversity, equity, inclusion, tolerance and belonging with respect to gender and sexual orientation, race and ethnicity”. , disabilities and religious tolerance.

In addition to these requirements, the New Jersey Department of Education requires districts to be aligned with the Quality Single Accountability Continuum (QSAC). Since 2005, QSAC compliance has been in place to “ensure that school districts provide a thorough and effective education to all students.” And QSAC requires districts to adhere to the provisions listed above.

New Jersey School Librarians Association

The New Jersey Association of School Librarians (NJASL) helps school librarians across the state meet these challenges. The NJASL has created a Challenge Handbook that covers the many laws, standards, precedents, and policies directly related to providing students with grade-appropriate resources and supports.

School librarians, in particular, have a professional mission to encourage literacy, teach research skills, encourage the evaluation of sources, and advocate for every student’s right to read. But attempts to censor subjects and ban books from school libraries are not just bad for school librarians. Censorship is bad for students, for schools, and for teachers.

Silent censorship

As problematic as public challenges to a school’s literacy resources are, they often lead to a more discreet threat. The phrase “silent censorship” refers to the ways educators and districts can remove books, or even not buy them if they fear their choices will result in a challenge.

This avoidance of conflict is often disguised as an attempt to remain neutral. Unfortunately, when there are people who oppose knowledge, equity, diversity, inclusion and freedom of thought, schools and their educators cannot be neutral.

Limiting students’ access to materials in the name of preventing any discomfort they might encounter while reading is not good for students. It’s not good for the teaching profession. It is not good for our society. That is why it is imperative that every educator be aware of these challenges and offer support to colleagues inside and outside their district who may face these censored attacks.

Because representation matters

Jonathan Evison is one of many authors whose work has made “the list”. His post on the attack on his novel, lawn boy, affected his life is moving. The book reminds us of the confusion of adolescence, of knowing who we are and who we could become. Many students would benefit from knowing that they are not alone in their feelings and self explorations.

Evison’s book, aimed at discerning readers, reminds us that representation matters, especially in school materials. School libraries allow students to explore, discover who they are and learn that they are not alone. This is one of their most important functions.

Book challengers often tout their efforts as a way to keep students and parents from feeling bad. As award-winning author Kekla Magoon said during a presentation at AASL 2021, “We shouldn’t try to run away from discomfort or keep it away from our children.” And as New Jersey school librarian Martha Hickson points out in her article for the Office of Intellectual Freedom (OIF) of the American Association of School Librarians (AASL), “ultimately, no book is not ideal for every reader, especially works that address difficult topics reflecting real-world circumstances.But one reader’s objection is not a license to restrict all other readers of the book.

Dr. Steve Tetreault is an Educational Technology Trainer and School Library Media Specialist in Holmdel. He represents the Monmouth County Education Association on the Editorial Board of the NJEA and is a member of the NJASL. He can be contacted at [email protected]

Join a Regional Response Team

NJASL and the New Jersey Library Association (NJLA) have begun recruiting librarians, educators, and other members of the public concerned with these challenges to intellectual freedom in various locations across the state to act as “teams of regional intervention”.

The idea is to bring together people who know a specific area and are willing to get involved in local book challenge situations. This could be done through letter-writing campaigns to local school boards. This could be by attending school board meetings to offer their professional knowledge.

Whatever comfort level a volunteer has, NJSAL hopes they will offer it to support their local colleagues and community.

To join a regional response team, visit

Related Resources and Articles

Visit the New Jersey School Librarians Association at You will find valuable information, important links and other useful ones.

Some of particular interest include:

Learning for Justice (formerly Teaching Tolerance)

“Best Practices for Serving LGBTQ Students” Use the search function to find the title above.

The Adventures of Library Girl!

“A Proactive Approach to Book Challenges”, by Jennifer LaGarde

Examples to imitate

“Fighting a Collection Challenge with a Coalition of Lawyers” by Peter Bromberg

quest for knowledge

“Preparing for the Challenge: Tips for Fighting Censorship”, by Martha Hickson

New Jersey Association of School Librarians (NJASL)

“Book Challenge Handbook: Resources and Suggestions for Preparing for and Managing Controversies in School Libraries”


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