By Anne McCarthy

What do books like The Great Gatsby, The Wizard of Oz, The Color Purple, The Catcher in the Rye, and To Kill a Mockingbird all have in common? In addition to all being seminal literary classics, these books are among the many that have been banned over the years from schools and libraries throughout the U.S.

Book banning is not an old problem – books are still under threat. The American Library Association’s 2022 report, released this month, cited that in 2021 there were “729 challenges to library, school and university materials.”

Chris Finan, the Executive Director of the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC), is a fierce protector of books and free speech. Finan spoke with New York Book Forum in March about book banning, censorship, and how to advocate on behalf of books. (The NCAC’s statement on the book-banning crisis includes more information on the coalition’s thoughts.)

The banning of books appears to be happening at an unprecedented level right now. To what do you attribute this increase?

I think that the jury is out on whether this is going to be unprecedented or not. I guess we’re six months into it at this point, and it really started in September. The previous peak came in the early 1980s. It was a response, in part, to the election of Ronald Reagan, which was very encouraging to conservatives, and soon led to a huge jump in challenges [of books titles], over 1,000 per year. Of course, those are only the challenges that the ALA was able to report. I’ll be the first to tell you that they think that’s just a fraction of the number of actual challenges because most go unreported.

That was the background for the creation of Banned Books Week in 1982, an annual event in September to draw attention to the fact that books get banned in America. This is still news to a lot of people. We have a First Amendment and more freedom on paper than any other country in the world [but books continue to get banned]. Over time, the number [of books being banned] did decrease.

Why did the number of books that were being challenged begin dropping?

They went down because school districts began to adopt formal review policies. The big problem has always been that an administrator or a principal or an individual can just pull a book off the shelf and lose access to it. The whole idea of the review process is to make sure that there’s a considered judgment made about every book that’s challenged. The review committee usually involves a librarian or a teacher, and a parent. And the most important thing of all is that they read the whole book, as opposed to the excerpts that get featured by the critics during board meetings.

What differences do you see between now and that period?

The difference between now and then is the existence of social media, which allows for the very rapid dissemination of propaganda about particular books. So social media is one of the big differences, and this is a much more politicized period. We are in a more politically polarized environment than we were even in the 80s. We have politicians running on their position and being against [certain] books. We saw that in the Virginia governor’s race when The Bluest Eye became a big center of controversy.

We saw Ted Cruz talking about critical race theory during the nomination hearing for Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson; these are among the major talking points of the Republican Party right now. So, it’s being driven by politicians across the country in a way that we didn’t see in the past. Certainly, those two things – social media and politics – driving this are unprecedented. Another thing we have to acknowledge is that books have changed, you know, over the last 40 years. The fact that they address LGBTQ issues and gender issues.

That was beginning to happen in the 80s. In the early 80s, what was shocking to people was Judy Blume talking about sex to kids. I mean, she was the most challenged author of that period. Some Conservative parents today are really shocked to see these books today about LGBTQ rights, and all these factors create an explosive environment.

What does that new environment look like?

In that environment, what is happening is that the political pressure on school boards and school officials is so great that they are ignoring the policies – the good policies that they’ve adopted for reviewing books – and they’re just pulling the books.

Most review policies require that the books remain on the shelves while they’re reviewed, but they’re just pulling them. And if they’re giving any justification at all, they’re saying, ‘We are going to review these books now. And maybe we’ll return them.’ And in some places, they have returned them. But overall, the review procedure has broken down.

It’s anybody’s guess as to how long this will go on. We know that the polarization in our society is not going away anytime soon.

What does the National Coalition Against Censorship do?

The National Coalition Against Censorship was founded in 1974, at a time when these pressures were beginning to build. The Reagan election just ignited the tinder that had been building up in the 60s. There were many important free speech victories in the 60s and 70s, and there began to be this pushback. So, NCAC was established to advocate for the importance of the freedom to read and explore and debate and converse.

We are a coalition of over 50 nonprofit organizations, from a wide range of fields, including many publishing groups. We have professional groups, too; two of our most active groups are the National Council of Teachers of English and the National Council on Social Studies.

Our role is to carry on what Banned Books Week tries to do, which is to make people aware that every day on practically every day, there is a censorship controversy somewhere in America. And we try to be a voice for free speech in those situations.

Describe NCAC’s initiatives surrounding an unprecedented number of requests to remove books from libraries and schools.

We have two major projects. We have the Free Expression Network (FEN). We also have the Kids’ Right to Read Project (KRRP), which has been very active in responding to the current crisis. Its job is to monitor what’s going on, particularly in school districts, and to respond with letters to school boards that have these issues before them.

We don’t write to the ones that make the right decisions, but mostly we write to those that don’t – the ones that violate their policies or don’t give enough attention to the importance of making sure kids have access to these books. Because books are under attack, particularly those speaking to students of color and LGBTQ communities. Those kids are really hurt [by the decision to ban these books]. So KRRP is a response to that crisis on the local level. NCAC has a lot of involvement in what’s happening.

We try to be helpful for the people who are facing these struggles in our community. So, we work with librarians, we work with teachers, we work with students, and we try to help them organize and fight book banning in the current crisis.

We have created some special tools that we’re using. We have a hotline to encourage teachers to call and seek advice. We’ve reorganized our website, and we have many resources on the website for these issues. We have a special section on pushing back against book challenges. We’ve also developed a very innovative and popular tool called the Youth Free Expression database, which documents specific instances of censorship around the country. It documents the books, and student expression, because students also face limits on their ability to speak up within their schools.

Our larger purpose as a coalition is to bring together our participating organizations and people who support us in issuing important statements during times of crisis. In December, we issued a statement on the book banning crisis that was signed by over 1,000 signers – publishing companies, bookstores, individual librarians, and teachers. The purpose of this is really to get the attention of the rest of the world about what is happening.

Can you tell us about the NCAC’s Freedom to Teach initiative?

The same anger that’s being expressed about books is also being focused on teachers. And there are efforts throughout the country – by state legislators – to pass new laws restricting what can and what cannot be taught.

Beyond that, there are teachers being widely abused during school board meetings and in other contexts. Their critics think they’re engaged in propaganda, don’t understand that they’re professionals, and that the decisions they make aren’t personal ones – they’re professional ones. But that has really gotten lost. They’ve been called pedophiles in some places. There’s a real concern that all this anger at teachers is going to drive good teachers out of the schools.

So, we worked with our two teachers’ groups, the social studies and English teachers, to prepare the statement, which then was also joined by the math and science teachers to try to call a halt to what is happening. [We hoped to] get people to think about the consequences of trying to make teachers bear the brunt of the responsibility for these deep conflicts in our society. So, we’re proud to have to have helped facilitate that.

What are some strategies for fighting against banned books?

Well, there are several different ways to get involved. The first thing is for people in districts where these controversies are occurring to express their support for teachers and librarians, and to talk to their elected officials about the importance of the freedom to read and explain what is lost when people are afraid to teach the real world.

Another example we see is parents stepping forward and organizing themselves. There’s this group of mothers called Red Wine & Blue Education Fund, for example. Groups like that are forming as a localized thing. Not everybody is going to be able to do that. There are booksellers who are supporting kids by organizing banned books clubs.

We have a pilot project called Student Advocates for Speech where we are trying to help organize clubs in their schools where they will learn about the importance of free speech, both for their society and their own individual rights. And hopefully, the students will also learn the lesson that we must respect the rights even of those we disagree with and encourage conversation in schools about these issues. So, we’re looking right now for students to volunteer to organize these clubs in their schools.

What methods are effective?

Writing letters to the editor is also something anybody can do [to fight against banning books]. Usually, the letters are most likely to get published where these controversies occur. Letters to elected officials are also effective. NCAC recently wrote a letter to a group of Texas legislators who are asking every school district in Texas not to buy anymore child pornography, or anything explicit, and then to remove all those books from their libraries.

Our letter makes the point to them that there is no child pornography in schools there and there is no obscenity in schools; professional librarians and teachers are not going to buy that stuff. What they’re upset about – what they call child pornography, obscenity, and explicitness is not – [it] doesn’t come close to meeting these legal definitions. Still, they address issues of sex that are important.

This is all a follow-up on what Judy Blume started 40 years ago; writers being honest about the problems that are related to sex, but the politicians will not make that distinction because they get much more mileage [by not doing so]. So, we’re just calling them out and saying, this is ridiculous.

What leads to a book getting banned? What’s the process like and who gets to decide to ban them?

Well, it depends. There’s the way it should run, the way it shouldn’t be run, and the way it used to run. And I really want to stress that we’ve made real progress in this area over four years – the way it used to be run is that a parent would come in and complain to a principal.

And to get that parent off their back – and avoid them potentially involving other parents – they would pull the book. So, it would be the principal’s decision. Which, ultimately, is just the parents’ decision that this book doesn’t belong in the library. Well, that was completely unfair. And in a case like that, one parent is deciding for everybody else’s kids. And there isn’t that kind of unanimity. In public schools, many parents have different ideas about what their kids should read. So, along came the review processes which have been widely adopted.

So many of these big controversies – during which dozens of books have been pulled – are by places that have review policies. But they haven’t been abiding by them. They aren’t following the processes. There’s a formal review carried out by a committee that represents all the stakeholders – a parent, a teacher, and sometimes a student. And the committee talks about and read the book, deciding whether it’s appropriate. When that process occurs, the books are overwhelmingly returned to the shelf and not removed.

Chris, thank you for your time and these insights. The NYBF is grateful for NCAC’s efforts to fight against banning books in schools and libraries. During a time of so many challenged titles, the NCAC’s work remains crucial.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.