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Biden lambasts book ban attempts in remarks to teachers: ‘Empty shelves don’t help kids learn very much’

“I’ve never met a parent who wants a politician dictating what they can learn, what they can think, and who they can be,” the president said in remarks at the White House

Alex Woodward
Monday 24 April 2023 21:31 BST
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Joe Biden condemns officials ‘trying to score political points’ by banning books

President Joe Biden criticised elected officials behind a surge in book bans and challenges to library and classroom materials in his remarks from the White House honouring teachers from across the US.

“I never thought I’d be a president who is fighting against elected officials trying to ban and banning books,” the president said on 24 April. “Empty shelves don’t help kids learn very much. And I’ve never met a parent who wants a politician dictating what their kid can learn, and what they can think, or who they can be.”

His remarks to the Council of Chief State School Officers’ 2023 Teachers of the Year follow an explosion of attempts to ban hundreds of titles in school districts and libraries across the country within the last two years.

There have been at least 1,477 attempts to ban 874 individual book titles within the first half of the 2022-2023 school year, according to PEN America. The figures mark a nearly 30 per cent spike from book challenges over the previous year.

Last year, the American Library Association reported a record-high 1,269 demands to censor library books. There were at least 2,571 individual titles targeted for censorship, the group found.

Overwhelmingly, book ban attempts target stories by and about people of colour and LGBT+ people, PEN found. At least 30 per cent of the impacted titles are books about race, racism, or feature characters of colour, and more than a quarter of all titles include LGBT+ characters or themes.

PEN has described the measures collectively as part of a “concerted campaign” taking place across the country “to ban books and instructional materials containing ‘objectionable’ content” which often amounts to “little more than an acknowledgment” of LGBT+ people and the existence of racism or sexism.

State legislatures are also increasingly focused on legislation impacting LGBT+ people, particularly trans youth, while threatening to cut library budgets or censor materials in classrooms and libraries, an effort driven largely by objections to published materials by and about LGBT+ people.

President Joe Biden speaks to 2023 Teacher of the Year Rebecka Peterson from Oklahoma on 23 April. (REUTERS)

More than 100 bills in at least 31 states this year threaten to cut library budgets, implement book rating systems, regulate the kinds of books and materials in their collections, and amend obscenity definitions that preempt First Amendment protections, according to a database from EveryLibrary.

Republican officials across the US have defended such proposals with dubious claims that libraries and classrooms are circulating “pornography” and materials aimed at “sexualising” young children, which almost always are books written by or featuring LGBT+ people.

In his remarks, the president also renewed his demand for stronger gun control measures, telling the crowd of educators that they “should need to be armed to feel safe in a classroom.”

There have been at least 170 mass shootings so far in 2023, including the shooting inside a Nashville school where a heavily armed assailant killed three nine-year-old children and three adult employees last month. At least 548 children have been killed by gun violence within the first few months of the year, according to the Gun Violence Archive.

Gun violence remains the leading cause of death for American children, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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