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Jonathan Zimmerman: One way of stemming the tide of book bans? Allow for compromise

Parents who object to a book should have the right to prevent their own kids from reading it, just as they can opt out of sex education. But they have no right — none — to keep it out of the hands of other children.

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"Gender Queer: A Memoir," by Maia Kobabe.
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In November 2020, Washington held the nation’s first-ever state referendum on sex education. By a nearly 60% to 40% plurality, voters in the Evergreen State approved a set of guidelines that include information about contraception, LGBTQ identities and sexual consent. But the guidelines also allow parents to opt out of the subject if they don’t want their kids to study it at school.

That seems like a good compromise to me. Most Americans want their children to receive comprehensive sex education, which shouldn’t be blocked simply because a minority of families rejects it. At the same time, though, these dissenters shouldn’t be forced to undergo instruction that they deem inappropriate or immoral.

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So why can’t we forge a similar truce around banned books?

I’m talking about works such as Maia Kobabe’s memoir, “Gender Queer” — which has been banned in 41 school districts — and “The Bluest Eye,” by Toni Morrison, which 22 districts have banned. According to a report released this month by PEN America, an eye-popping 1,648 books have been banned over the past year in 138 school districts in 32 states.

Sometimes, these books are prohibited outright from inclusion in school libraries, classrooms or curricula. Others are placed in a restricted section of a library, counseling center or resource room. But the larger goal is always the same: to limit the number of children who can encounter the books because somebody disapproves of them.

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That’s exactly backward. Parents who object to a book should have the right to prevent their own kids from reading it, just as they can opt out of sex education. But they have no right — none — to keep it out of the hands of other children.

And that’s what they’re trying to do. Consider the Gardner Edgerton School District 231 in Kansas, where a group of parents demanded the removal of Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” from the high school English curriculum.

Asked whether she would prohibit her own children from reading Alexie’s book, one of the objecting parents said that wasn’t the point. “It’s not about them necessarily individually,” she said. “It’s about … all the kids in the district. … Kids should not be reading this information or these words.” She cited sexual themes in the book.

Translated: I don’t like the words, so no child should read them. Period. Ironically, these same critics often seek to censor books in the name of “parents’ rights.” But they are the ones denying other parents the right to decide what their kids read in school.

The school district wisely rejected the demand to ban Alexie’s book, instead allowing parents who objected to it to choose another assignment for their kids. And that’s exactly the kind of bargain that can help alleviate the banned books controversy.

In Polk County, Florida, school officials have created an online tool to allow parents to bar their kids from borrowing 16 titles labeled as “pornographic” by the Florida Citizens Alliance, a conservative pressure group. At first, the district announced that the books would be available only to children whose parents gave them explicit permission. But several school board members said that placed an undue burden on families.

They were right. In America, nobody should ever be required to get special approval to read a book. Instead, as the district ultimately decided, parents who object should have the opportunity of opting their kids out.

That’s the model we’ve used for sex education: Thirty-four states and the District of Columbia allow parents to opt out of the subject. Critics of the provision say it harms students whose parents exercise that choice because they don’t get the knowledge they need. Likewise, under the opt-out system for school libraries, a child who is struggling with their sexual identity might be blocked from borrowing “Gender Queer” and other books about the topic.

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I share those concerns. But if we don’t let parents prevent their children from taking out allegedly dangerous books, they’re more likely to demand that the books be removed altogether.

And that’s the biggest danger right now. Public education is under attack from a well-organized group of censors who want to control what your kids can read in school. The best way to stave them off is to let them censor their own kids, so yours can keep reading what they want.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of “Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools,” published in a revised 20th-anniversary edition this fall by the University of Chicago Press.

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