Federal Legislation Spotlight: The Freedom to Read - National Council of Teachers of English
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Federal Legislation Spotlight: The Freedom to Read

The Intellectual Freedom Center at NCTE has received ongoing reports from teachers, school librarians, parents, families, and authors in the past few years detailing challenges to access to books and ideas in public schools. These reports are backed up by data reported by our partners at the American Library Association (ALA), PEN America, and the National Coalition Against Censorship. In 2023, the Office for Intellectual Freedom at the ALA recorded 1,247 attempts of censorship involving 4,240 unique book titles, a 65% increase over 2022, the previous high. Driving this increase were demands by groups and individuals for the censorship of multiple titles. Thirty-nine percent (39%) of the reported attempts occurred at school libraries, and 5% at schools. Unfortunately, censorship attempts went beyond banning books and other materials. Reports filed with the ALA included threats to close or defund libraries and to criminally prosecute librarians and teachers for providing books and resources to students.

Congress is not staying silent. In the past year, several pieces of legislation have been introduced to protect the right and freedom to read. Four bills are highlighted below, along with, when available, links to websites that allow individuals to easily submit prepared letters of support to their congressperson. Unfortunately, the censorship conversation is split along party lines, and all four bills are only supported by Democrats or Independents.

The Right to Read Act (S. 1307 and H.R. 2889) is a bicameral piece of legislation reintroduced in the spring of 2023 by Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) in the Senate and Representative Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ) in the House. The Right to Read Act seeks to limit censorship by ensuring that States and Local Education Agencies (LEAs) receiving certain federal funds have policies that protect a student’s “right to read,” including access to “culturally diverse and inclusive materials” and “the freedom to choose reading materials.” Each state and LEA receiving funds must confirm that it will (1) protect the First Amendment rights of students in school libraries and (2) provide equal protection in the conduct of school libraries in compliance with the requirements of the Fourteenth Amendment and nondiscrimination laws. The bill also provides liability protection to teachers, school librarians, school leaders, paraprofessionals, and other staff for actions that conform with state or local policies regarding the right to read.

When the Right to Read Act was reintroduced in the House and the Senate, NCTE Executive Director Emily Kirkpatrick stated, “Limiting student access to books infringes on a well-rounded education and connecting to the expansiveness of humanity. The Right to Read Act protects access to the benefits of teacher and librarian expertise and, ultimately, a society filled with possibilities rather than fears.”

Currently, seven senators and 46 representatives, all Democrats, are co-sponsoring the Right to Read Act. You can submit a prepared letter of support for this legislation to your senator or representative through the American Association of School Librarians’ website.

While the Right to Read Act provides liability protection for actions that conform with Right to Read policies, the Fight Book Bans Act  (H.R. 6592) takes protections for school staff one step further. The Fight Book Bans Act, introduced in the House in December 2023, would fight censorship by enabling the Department of Education to grant up to $100,000 to school districts to cover expenses incurred while fighting book bans and bans of other instructional and library material. Expenses include the cost of retaining legal representation, traveling to hearings, the logistics for those hearings, and obtaining expert research and advice. Currently, 79 members of Congress have signed on to co-sponsor this bill, including all Democrats. The ACLU and PEN America support the bill.

The Books Save Lives Act (H.R. 6830), introduced in Congress by Representative Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), requires public libraries receiving federal assistance and school libraries in LEAs receiving federal aid to maintain a diverse collection of books. The bill defines a diverse collection as “books or other items of educational media written by, illustrated by, or about an individual who is a member of an underrepresented community.” This bill also classifies discriminatory book bans as violations of federal civil rights laws. Currently, there are 35 co-sponsors of this bill, all Democrats. NCTE’s Executive Director participated in the bill’s launch at a roundtable discussion facilitated by Rep. Pressley in Washington, DC. You can submit a prepared support letter through the EveryLibrary’s website to encourage your representative to co-sponsor the bill.

In October 2023, Representative Jamie Raskin (D-MD) and Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI) introduced resolutions in the House (H.Res. 733) and Senate (S.Res. 372), respectively, expressing concern about the spreading problem of book banning and the proliferation of threats to freedom of expression in the United States. The resolution also calls on “school districts to protect the rights of students to learn and the ability of educators and librarians to teach, including by providing students with the opportunity to read a wide array of books reflecting the full breadth and diversity of viewpoints and perspectives.” A Resolution is not binding law but expresses the collective sentiment of the House or the Senate on a particular issue. There are 20 co-sponsors in the Senate, Democrats and Independents, and 59 co-sponsors in the House, all Democrats. NCTE was named as a best practice leader in this version of the bill and the previous iteration in 2022. NCTE was also an early signer of both resolutions.