President Joe Biden criticized elected Republican officials for the increasingly widespread practice of banning books from America’s schools and libraries in prepared remarks delivered from the White House on Monday.
Addressing an audience gathered in the Rose Garden for the Council of Chief State School Officers’ Teachers of the Year event, the president said, “Empty shelves don’t help kids learn very much,” adding, “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.”
By framing these policies as government overreach, Biden co-opted and repurposed the “parental rights” language commonly used by conservatives advocating for book bans.
For example, right-wing activists often argue that requiring schools and libraries to allow interested parties to review the materials made available to minors and lodge complaints with anything they may find objectionable rightfully restores the rights of parents to exercise more control over how their children are educated.
According to PEN America, however, the first half of the 2022-2023 school year has seen at least 1,477 attempts to ban 874 individual book titles, disproportionately targeting materials that include LGBTQ characters or themes or those that address issues of racial justice.
Explicitly targeting these materials for censorship are elected officials like Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and his conservative allies in the state legislature, who last week expanded the controversial “Don’t Say Gay” law (officially known as the Parental Rights in Education Act), which Biden has called “hateful.”
Critics have long argued the law, which will now cover all grade levels in Florida’s public schools, uses overly broad language with the specter of many different enforcement mechanisms to create a chilling effect designed to discourage teachers and staff from offering affirming messages to LGBTQ students or from serving openly if they themselves are LGBTQ.
“By opening the door to arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement against speech that favors or promotes the inclusion and acceptance of LGBTQ+ individuals,” the American Bar Association wrote, “the law arguably runs afoul of the First Amendment’s stringent prohibition on viewpoint discrimination and imposes an unconstitutional chilling effect on disfavored speech.”
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