Battling Literary Censorship: New Court Actions

In News by Porter Anderson

The Association of American Publishers and associates are in court, they say, to protect freedoms ‘foundational to our democracy.’

Image – Getty iStockphoto: Chuang Tzu Dreaming

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

Stratton: ‘Content-Based Discrimination’
As the United States’ publishing industry accelerates its efforts to resist mostly right-wing efforts in book censorship, two stories are pertinent.

Today (June 2), the Association of American Publishers (AAP) has become one entity in a coalition of publishers, booksellers, librarians and readers filing a lawsuit “to defend Arkansas citizens’ right to read.”

And also today, the AAP has made common cause with some of the world’s largest publishing companies to file an amicus brief in a case in Llano County, Texas.

These responses reflect what AAP president and CEO Maria A. Pallante told the main-stage audience at London Book Fair in April: some of the most severe assaults on freedom of expression and the freedom to publish in the American market appear to be starting “in the provinces,” as it might be said in Europe. Actions often hostile to the public’s right to read what it chooses are surfacing first in state, municipal, and/or county jurisdictions far from the nation’s Washington-based federal center.

In Arkansas: Act 372

Signed by Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the governor of Arkansas and a former press secretary for the Donald Trump White House, Act 372 was signed on March 30 and is scheduled to go into effect on August 1.

As described for an April 19 report by Jacqueline Froelich for KUAF, a National Public Radio affiliate, “Arkansas Act 372 which takes effect in a few months criminalizes librarians and library staff for knowingly furnishing print and digital literature to minors ruled to be harmful or obscene. The measure was brought by Right-wing Republican lawmakers who seek to erase juvenile library materials about racial equity and inclusion, queer culture, black history, and sex education.”

In the Arkansas case, the newly filed lawsuit challenges a bill that the plaintiffs say would restrict access to books in state bookstores and public libraries. The coalition speaking collectively to the news media in this case includes:

  • American Booksellers Association
  • Association of American Publishers
  • Authors Guild
  • Comic Book Legal Defense Fund
  • Freedom to Read Foundation
  • WordsWorth Books in Little Rock
  • Pearl’s Books in Fayetteville
  • A consortium of local libraries, librarians, and library advocates, including Fayetteville Public Library, Eureka Springs Carnegie Public Library
  • Central Arkansas Library System (CALS) and its director, Nate Coulter
  • Arkansas Library Association
  • Advocates for All Arkansas Libraries
  • Adam Webb, a librarian from Garland County
  • Olivia Farrell, an adult patron of the Central Arkansas Library System
  • Hayden Kirby, a 17-year-old CALS patron
  • Leta Caplinger, a patron of the Crawford County Public Library

In their media messaging, the group says:

  • Together, we have filed this lawsuit to protect the First Amendment rights of Arkansas’ reading community. Arkansas Act 372 robs the state’s readers of their constitutional right to receive information and threatens the state’s booksellers and librarians with extreme punishments for performing their core—and essential—function of making books available to the public.
  • “This law will ultimately force bookstores and librarians to restrict their offerings to works that are suitable for minors, or bar them from entering institutions that have long served as the nexus between community and learning.
  • “We oppose any and all efforts to undermine the First Amendment, which is foundational to our democracy and critical to the lawful exchange of art, literature, and information. Books have long shaped our understanding of the world around us and provided readers with the chance to explore topics that span a vast spectrum of ideas and experiences. The booksellers and librarians of Arkansas are stewards of that proud tradition, and their essential mission of serving the state’s readers must be preserved.”

Mary Rasenberger

In a separate statement provided to Publishing Perspectives, Mary Rasenberger, CEO of the Authors Guild, says, “The argument that certain books need to be removed from schools to ‘protect children’ is now being used to limit access for adults, as well, which infringes on everyone’s rights. Efforts to remove these books not only diminish the richness of our cultural tapestry but also send a message that the experiences of LGBTQ+ and other marginalized communities are unworthy of representation.  

“It’s our shared responsibility to safeguard the literary freedom that forms the bedrock of a democratic society. By supporting the availability and accessibility of diverse books, we can foster dialogue, promote understanding, and counter the marginalization of these communities.”

In Texas: ‘Little v. Llano County’

In this case today, the AAP has been joined by Penguin Random House, Candlewick Press, Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Scholastic, and Simon & Schuster in filing an amicus brief in support of the plaintiffs, patrons of the Llano County Library System in Llano County, Texas, in the case of  Little v. Llano County.

At The New York Times in April, David Montgomery and Alexandra Alter, writing about the controversy, said, “Several of the books in question in Llano County have LGBTQ themes or characters, or addressed racial inequality, but they also include goofy children’s titles, such as a series of picture books about flatulence.”

So contentious has the situation become, in which a reported 17 books were removed from the Llano County library system, that the county considered shutting down its libraries rather than restore the books to the shelves, as a court ordered. What this suit challenges are actions taken by members of the Llano County Commissioners Court; members of the Llano County Library Board; and the Llano County Library System Director.

The underlying lawsuit, Little v. Llano County, was filed on April 25, 2022, by seven Llano County residents, claiming that, among other things, public officials had violated their constitutional rights under the First Amendment by banning books based on content and viewpoint. In March 2023, a federal court granted plaintiffs a preliminary injunction, which ordered that return of the books to the library system and catalog. The defendants are now appealing that decision.

Matthew Stratton

In a separate statement from Matthew Stratton, deputy general counsel for the AAP, we read, “On behalf of our many members, we are pleased to file this amicus brief in support of the critically important suit brought by public library patrons

“As our brief states, the instinct to ban books is not unique to any particular political ideology, but regardless of when or where it happens, the removal of books from the shelves of a public library is fundamentally inconsistent with the tenets of American democracy.

“Accordingly, time and again courts have upheld core First Amendment freedoms by rejecting attempts to impose viewpoint and content-based discrimination in libraries.”

And in part of the amicus brief, it’s pointed out, “The county’s removals targeted some of the most celebrated and consequential works of recent years, as well as popular and classic children’s books.”

The titles include:

  • Caste: The Origin of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson, which was on the longlist for the National Book Awards and Time Magazine’s No. 1 Nonfiction Book of the Year
  • They Called Themselves the KKK: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group by Susan Campbell Bartoletti, a winner of the Newbery Honor and the Washington Post/ Children’s Book Guild Nonfiction Award and a finalist for the American Library Association’s Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults award
  • Spinning by Tillie Walden, a coming-of-age story of the author, a competitive figure skater, and a book that was the winner of the 2018 Eisner Award for Best Reality-Based Work
  • In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak, the iconic children’s classic and winner of a Caldecott Honor, among other outstanding titles

More from Publishing Perspectives on issues of censorship is here, more on book bannings is here, more on the Association of American Publishers is here, and more on the Authors Guild is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.