This is part two of a three-part series on book bans in Pennsylvania.
Pennsylvania state Sen. Amanda Cappelletti says legislation she introduced last month to bar public schools and libraries from banning books for political, racial or ideological reasons is unlikely to be voted on, let alone passed, by the state’s Republican-led Senate.
Cappelletti isn’t expecting her GOP colleagues to reverse course on the censorship and book bans they’ve supported in recent years, including legislation passed by the Senate characterized as a de facto book ban by education advocates and Democratic lawmakers.
“For that to occur, I would need the Republicans to have a change of heart,” Cappelletti told the Pennsylvania Independent of Senate Bill 926 making it out of the upper chamber’s Education Committee. The bill was introduced on Oct. 3 and referred to the committee, but no further legislative action has been taken on it.
Still, Cappelletti, who represents parts of Montgomery and Delaware counties, said she’s not giving up. She’s determined to continue to raise awareness around the soaring number of book bans in the state and the country.
She’s hopeful that Democrats will, for the first time since 1993, retake the Pennsylvania Senate in 2024, following in the footsteps of Democrats in the House who won a majority in 2022 for the first time since 2010. That, Cappelletti said, would give legislation like hers a greater chance of becoming law, provided Democrats maintain their majority in the House. Gov. Josh Shapiro, who signs the bills into law, is a Democrat.
“Right now it’s 28-22,” Cappelletti said of the state Senate. “We win three seats, it becomes 25-25, and Lt. Gov. Austin Davis is the tie-breaking vote, and he is an elected Democrat and has always aligned very well with the issues that are important to my caucus.”
A spokesperson for Republican Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward did not respond to an email asking whether the Senate would hold a vote on S.B. 926.
Cappelletti’s bill would mandate that public libraries, including school libraries, adopt the American Library Association’s Bill of Rights in order to receive state funding. The policy stipulates that “materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval” and says “libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues.” Cappelletti’s legislation would also preempt municipalities from cutting funding to local libraries that adopt the American Library Association policy.
“Our children, students, families and communities are all at a disadvantage due to the rise of book bans across the commonwealth,” Cappelletti said during a September press conference. “Our libraries offer so much to our schools and communities, and this rise of censorship is an attempt to dismantle a public good that has been a durable piece of our community infrastructure since Benjamin Franklin’s founding of the country’s first library in 1731 right here in Pennsylvania.”
In Pennsylvania and across the country, local governments led by right-wing politicians have slashed or threatened to cut funding to public libraries, often over libraries’ refusal to remove books with LGBTQ+ characters from their shelves. Fulton Township supervisors in Lancaster County announced at a meeting last week that they would no longer provide funding for the local library because it offers LGBTQ+ materials.
“The library community is really under attack; their integrity is under attack,” said Sharon Ward, the senior policy director for the Philadelphia-based Education Law Center. “A lot of times, individual librarians are under attack. They are considered to be the enemy, which is really hard to believe.”
The Education Law Center works with Pennsylvania school districts, librarians, teachers, parents and others navigating their rights in the face of mounting book bans and challenges.
The number of such bans and challenges has in recent years exploded across the state and country, alongside the growth of a so-called parental rights movement that is fueled by right-wing groups such as Moms for Liberty and is buoyed in large part by anti-LGBTQ+ bigotry. Founded in 2021, Moms for Liberty has been labeled extremist by the Southern Poverty Law Center, pushed an anti-transgender agenda during its annual summit in Philadelphia this summer, and works to elect far-right school board members who champion book bans and policies targeting LGBTQ+ students.
The bans and challenges often target books centering LGBTQ+ characters and people of color. In Pennsylvania, 642 books have been banned in public school districts since 2021, according to PEN America, the human rights group that works to protect writers and is dedicated to fighting book bans nationwide. The group reported the books banned in Pennsylvania school districts in the 2022-23 school year included “This Book is Gay” by Juno Dawson, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou, and “The Color Purple” by Alice Walker — all books that explore sexuality, gender, and race.
The American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom reported 695 attempts to censor public library materials and services nationwide and documented challenges to 1,915 unique titles between Jan. 1, 2023, and Aug. 31, 2023 — a 20% increase over the same period in 2022. The association noted that the vast majority of those books were written by or about a person of color or a member of the LGBTQ+ community.
Nationwide, 30% of the material involved in 3,362 instances of book banning in schools included LGBTQ+ characters or themes, according to PEN America. Meanwhile, 30% featured characters of color or discussed race and racism, while 42% covered topics of health and well-being, such as bullying, suicide and substance abuse.
“The issue here is parents already have the right to exempt their children from certain materials,” Cappelletti said in an interview. “They already have the right to talk to their libraries about controlling what their children are taking out of the classrooms.”
“I would rather trust our teachers and our librarians to curate libraries and syllabi that reflect our communities, that will stretch our thinking and teach our children to critically think about the world around them,” Cappelletti continued.
Cappelletti said her GOP colleagues employ the falsehood that inappropriate sexual content is being pushed on students.
Educators and education advocates are backing Cappelletti’s legislation.
“I really hope it gets passed,” Ariel Franchak, a reading specialist in the Carlisle Area School District and a leader in the group Stop Moms for Liberty’s Pennsylvania chapter. The group advocates against book bans, mobilizes against other policies backed by Moms for Liberty, and generally works to protect public education across the country.
“Before this even came about, I was like, We need to come up with something to protect the right to read and stop these book bans,” Franchak said.
Ronna Dewey, the Pennsylvania program director for Red Wine and Blue, also backed Cappelletti’s legislation. Red Wine and Blue is a nonprofit organization that raises awareness around book bans nationwide as part of its work to engage women in politics.
“If Senator Cappelletti’s legislation passes, it would be a big win for readers everywhere,” Dewey wrote in an email to the Pennsylvania Independent. “Kids should be able to see themselves within the pages of a book and also learn the stories of people who are different. That is how kids learn to understand themselves and the world around them. Kids deserve to have an accurate and well-rounded education. Taking away books makes kids less prepared for the real world. Giving them access to diverse, age-appropriate books will help them be prepared for the future. Isn’t that what every parent wants for their child?
“Teachers and librarians are under so much pressure right now,” Dewey continued. “They are under attack simply for trying to do their jobs. That leads to teachers self-censoring because they are afraid of retribution. Wouldn’t it be amazing if teachers could just get back to teaching and could stop worrying about getting fired over a word in a book?”