North Carolina bans ‘Banned Books Week’ but retracts after media backlash

<span>Photograph: Allison Joyce/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Allison Joyce/AFP/Getty Images

North Carolina’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district appears to be a bit confused as to where it stands in the ongoing battle against books around the US: they banned educators from participating in a weeklong series of events drawing attention to banned books and then … said there was no ban.

The American Library Association (ALA) holds “Banned Books Week” annually, with this year’s iteration running from 1-7 October, to celebrate the freedom to read and discuss attempts to censor books.

According to WFAE, a public radio station serving North Carolina, district officials in Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools told principals to cancel events, readings, suggestions, announcements, messages or displays linked to the program.

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“It has come to our attention that some schools have planned events next week October 1-7, to mark the American Library Association’s ‘Banned Book Week’,” wrote Shayla Cannady to school principals on Friday: “If this is the case, all principals are requested to cancel all events and messaging associated with this observance.”

The directive want on to say that banned book week was not aligned with districts’ academic curricula: “It is not something we teach in our classrooms or as supplementary material for out of school learning.”

It went on to note that under North Carolina’s passed senate bill 49, known as the Parents’ Bill of Rights, a law establishing the rights of parents “to direct the upbringing, education, healthcare, and mental health of minor children” and attempts to share material about banned book week “could be seen as a violation”.

On Saturday, after national outlets like the Daily Beast picked up the story, that missive was revised. In a statement to WFAE, the district said “the original message shared by the Communications Division was shared in response to several principal requests about the observance. The information shared was for building-level administrators to use, if needed”.

“We are not taking a position on banned book week as it is a site-based decision. It is not a violation or in any way associated with Parents Bill of Rights,” it concluded.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district did not immediately respond to the Guardian’s request for comment.

The ALA said it received 1,269 demands to censor library books and resources last year, the highest number of attempted book bans since it began compiling data about censorship in libraries more than 20 years ago.

Of those titles, ALA said in a statement earlier this year that “the vast majority were written by or about members of the LGBTQIA+ community and people of color”.

The aim of the challenges, said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, was to “to suppress the voices of those traditionally excluded from our nation’s conversations”.

“The choice of what to read must be left to the reader or, in the case of children, to parents. That choice does not belong to self-appointed book police,” Caldwell-Stone said.

Most book challenges, she added, were not the result of a parent filing authentic requests for reconsideration but groups and individuals at library board meetings demanding lists of book titles taken “from organized censorship groups”.

In April, the association unveiled a list of the top 10 most challenged books. The list includes Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe, All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M Johnson, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison and This Book Is Gay by Juno Dawson.

This may be the first time that efforts to draw attention to banned books has itself been banned. Colleen Miller of the Pavement Education Project told WFAE that ALA leaders were engaged in “promotion of the LGBTQ ideology and other Marxist theories”.

Attempts by groups in North Carolina to impose restrictions on certain literature extended into the criminal justice system, with titles including The Color Purple and Orange Is the New Black among books that are banned from circulation behind bars.

“When people rights and freedoms are starting to be trampled upon, outside of being incarcerated – and they shouldn’t be while incarcerated – but it is extremely concerning on both sides,” Kerwin Pittman, the director of North Carolina’s recidivism reduction educational program services, told WRAL in Raleigh earlier this year.

“Some books I could kind of understand, especially when it comes to safety concerns, but majority of the books, it makes no sense,” he added.