CENSORED!– Thought police: Growing censorship of comics threatens education

Some of the recent books challenged by modern-day censors. | PW Illustration

This article originally appeared in People’s World.

“It is only through the imagination that we reinvent ourselves and our relation to others. [In the era of neoliberalism] education has been instrumentalized…reconceived as a means of acquiring more—more money, more commodities, more and more…. Knowledge at its best is about transforming our world—making life more habitable for humans and other beings, and about preventing the destruction of the planet itself.” – Dr. Angela Davis

Critical thinking has always been an important skill for young people learning to understand the world they live in—and it’s one we need now more than ever. From figuring out how to fix a government corrupted by big money to saving us all from global warming, it’s going to take some major critical thinking from all of us if we’re going to find solutions for the future.

One of the most important places to foster those skills, of course, is in school. Yet, with issues like underfunding and the increased reliance on rigid, standardized testing plaguing the public education system, the chances of students getting the tools they need in order to better the world, as opposed to unthinkingly maintaining the status quo, are becoming more limited.

One aspect of the fight for better public education is the resistance to curriculum censorship, especially as related to the kinds of books and comics teachers are allowed to assign their students. The old saying goes that reading is fundamental, but there are forces are at work that seek to limit the kind of reading materials allowed in the classroom. But it’s an effort that has effects outside school as well.

The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF), an organization dedicated to protecting the freedom to read comics, wants more people to know about the censoring of comics and novels that often targets topics centering on marginalized communities. At this year’s San Diego Comic Con, the largest comic book and popular arts convention in the world, the organization held a panel detailing the ways comics are under attack and what readers can do to help.

With lawsuits against schools that use LGBTQ comics, the intimidation of manga readers by customs authorities, and persecution of cartoonists around the world, CBLDF believe comics censorship remains an urgent problem that can have rippling effects on our culture.

The panel, titled “Comics Censorship 2019,” was moderated by the Executive Director of CBLDF, Charles Brownstein, and a number of leading librarians involved in the fight back against book censorship.

Brownstein explained that in recent years there has been an “emboldening” of censors out to target literature. The moderator went further, specifying that the clearest rising censorship trend is “identity censorship,” which involves blocking content because of who it is by or what it is about. “The LGBTQI community is the most frequent target of this kind of censorship,” Brownstein explained.

Focusing on school curricula, the panel named a variety of recent cases, some still active, that exemplify the often-discriminatory undertones of these challenges to materials taught in schools.

In May 2019, a group of parents in northern California’s Rocklin Unified School District pulled close to 700 K-5 students out of class in order to protest LGBTQ-inclusivity lessons. Speaking out against the protest at the time, spokesperson for the Sacramento LGBTQ Community Center, Rachel Henry, argued:

“Students who may not identify with a marginalized group have a right to learn about the diversity of people who have contributed to the world. We cannot do that if that important diversity goes unnamed and unidentified in our history books.”

The graphic memoir Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel (Dykes to Watch Out For), remains at the center of many censorship controversies. The book, released in 2006, chronicles the author’s youth in rural Pennsylvania. It addresses themes of sexual orientation, gender roles, suicide, and dysfunctional family life. It’s been challenged by parents in a number of school districts, most recently in New Jersey, where some parents wanted it removed from the grade 12 curriculum.

In 2018, high school teachers in Irving, Texas prepared a social justice lesson plan using graphic novels, including Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson; Monster, by Walter Dean Myers; MARCH, by Congressman John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell; In Real Life, by Cory Doctorow; Hidden, by Loic Dauvillier, Greg Salsedo, and Marc Lizanos; and Marc Andreyko’s anthology Love is Love.

Two days before the lesson plan was to go into effect, administrators demanded it be stopped and that all books be packed up and returned, citing a complaint to the superintendent. This happened despite teachers’ complaints that the demand to cease and desist did not follow proper policy.

Eventually, all the books found their way back into the school’s collection—except Love is Love, which was dedicated to victims of the Orlando Nightclub shooting.

Citing a surge of what he described as “anti-education legislation,” Brownstein noted there have been a number of bills seeking to punish educators for the kinds of material they assign students. For example, Vermont’s LD 94 bill, which failed to pass, would have punished teachers for assigning so-called “obscene materials.”

In Florida, a number of similar bills have been put on the books. A law passed in 2017 allowed any Florida resident to contest instructional materials, even if they have no ties to the school. This paved the way for a number of new bills within the same framework, such as

HB 855 and SB 1454 which would expand the definition of “harmful to minors” to include any sexual content regardless of academic merit. This would criminalize books such as Romeo and Juliet and 1984.

In February of this year, a group called It’s Your Tea Party attempted to have a number of books removed from middle and high school libraries. They included The Bluest Eye and Beloved, both by African-American writer Toni Morrison, and Dreaming in Cuban, by Cristinia Garcia.

“What makes something or someone controversial?” panelist and librarian Candice Mack asked. “Who gets to make that decision? There are coded and not so coded messages [behind these policies]. That’s what we’re fighting against. [We’re fighting for] people [of marginalized groups] having the right to exist and be represented in literature. On face value, it’s a book, but it is not just about the book.”

There are even instances where the artist of the literature themselves face discrimination and censorship.

As recently as this month, the Leander Public Library in Texas cancelled an event featuring transgender comics author and advocate Lilah Sturges—just two hours before Lilah was slated to speak. Brownstein noted there have been a number of similar LGBTQ events cancelled in Texas, and that CBLDF is fighting to raise awareness of the discrimination.

The panel explained that there are a number of ways to combat this surge of censorship. The first was to “make CBLDF” your first call. “We can get involved and then mobilize,” Brownstein said.

The panel also urged educators, community members, and parents to find out about the policies in their schools and about who makes and enforces them. “School Board elections are important; get involved with deciding who runs and holds these seats,” one panelist asserted.

The panel at San Diego Comic Con comes amidst a wave of teacher strikes and victories sweeping the country. Teachers have been standing up for better treatment, higher wages, and better education for their students. These fights are a response to the continued devaluing of public education, as the Trump administration seeks for a third straight year to slash the U.S. Department of Education’s budget.

The education fight also has to include a teacher’s right to assign the kind of reading they believe will improve a student’s knowledge of the world and the people in it.

The panel explained that while teachers and administrators may be afraid of losing their jobs over the books they assign, resources are there to help. The National Coalition Against Censorship was highlighted as an ally. It’s made up of a number of organizations, including several unions, such as the NewsGuild-CWA, Writers Guild of America, East and West, and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT).

In April, AFT President Randi Weingarten said teachers must be given the freedom to teach. She asserted that educators needed the respect and “latitude to raise concerns and act in the best interests of their students without fear of retaliation.”

Brownstein echoed this sentiment in relation to artists. “It’s important to stand up for artists and their right to speak truth to power,” he stated. “When we see injustices and suppression it’s important to speak out.”

A list of the most recently challenged books can be found here.

A list of the most recent cases of the CBLDF can be found here.

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