Who Decides?

The Bill of Rights–as I repeatedly note– addresses areas of citizens’ lives that the Founders marked “off limits” to government authority, answering the question “who decides this?” in favor of individual citizens.

That framing is one way to look at today’s vicious culture war.

Those of us who want to maintain the constitutional line between matters government is authorized to decide and matters remitted to our individual consciences are under attack by the autocrats and theocrats who want to use the power of the state to impose their favored choices on everyone else. Nowhere is that clearer than in the persistent efforts to control what books we can read and what information we can access.

A recent article from Axios focused on that battle.

Attempts to ban books at public libraries have reached record levels, pitting right-wing parents and legislators against those who oppose censorship.

Driving the news: The culture war over books has become a legislative battle as well.

  • Last year, more than 150 bills in 35 states aimed to restrict access to library materials, and to punish library workers who do not comply,” per the New York Times.
  • As a counterpunch, legislators in blue and purple states are coming to the aid of librarians to help them fight efforts to remove books with certain racial, sexual or gender-related themes.
  • Last June, Illinois became the first state to pass a law penalizing libraries that ban books.

What they’re saying: “We have broadened the framing to refer to ‘intellectual freedom challenges'” rather than just book bans, AnnaLee Dragon, executive director of the New York Library Association, tells Axios.

The hypocrisy is obvious. As one librarian reportedly told Axios, “It’s the same people who are out touting the freedom to own a gun. But you don’t think I have the right to pick a book for my kid?”

The American Library Association has mounted a campaign, Unite Against Book Bans, to encourage people to take action locally, and it’s also selling a workbook for librarians about “navigating intellectual freedom challenges together.”

Libraries have long been seen as cradles of democracy; in the words of former U.S. Senator Wendell Ford, “If information is the currency of democracy, then libraries are its banks.”

The current attacks are coming from what the article calls “a small but vocal minority” that opposes libraries precisely because they are democratic– inclusive, affirming, and intentional. That minority sees access to information as a threat.

The current onslaught has come at a time when libraries are serving an expanding variety of community needs. Librarians have gotten used to tackling whatever tasks society demands of them, and those demands continue to broaden. As Time Magazine recently reported, 

Libraries are among the most visited public service institutions, totaling more than 1 billion visits annually with users turning to libraries for critical educational services in addition to books. In recent years, as many as 118 million participants have taken part in nearly 6 million programs focused on early and family literacy, digital literacy instruction, after-school homework support and summer reading programs for youth, adult literacy and basic education, career readiness, small business development, arts and humanities programming, English for Speakers of Other Languages instruction, and special programs for adults navigating memory loss and reentry after incarceration.

The effort to restrict what information other citizens can access has accelerated.

Last year there were 1,269 attempts to censor library books, the highest number of attempted book bans in the two decades that ALA has been compiling data about censorship in libraries. During this same period, 2,571 unique book titles were targeted for censorship, an astonishing 32% increase over 2021, with 40% of book challenges occurring in public libraries, while the remaining nearly 60% occurred in school libraries. As these threats to the right to read continue, in all too many cases, parents are being roped into banning books they haven’t even heard of before, let alone read, by extremist groups using book banning as a political tactic. At a school board meeting in Pennsylvania this year at which book censorship was being recommended, one parent supporting the banning of a title proclaimed, “I have not read the book myself, I don’t intend to read the book, but I have had portions distributed to me of this book.”

If we have come to a time in this country when parents can be successfully swayed into restricting access to books they haven’t read, what does that mean for our future as a nation? What other personal and constitutional rights might next be compromised?

Some constitutional questions are open to interpretation. This one isn’t.

The First Amendment protects our right to decide for ourselves what we and our children read.


  1. Thank you Sheila.
    I have attended at least four classes, presentations held at Indy Public Library Branches in the past two weeks, and have more planned for March.
    They have a vast array of offerings!
    And then we have the opportunity of Book Borrowing.
    This is a Community Support network I hardily support on several ways. Hope the rest of your readers do also.
    Great sharing!

  2. Book banning is a two edge sword. Today it’s LGTB literature and tomorrow it will be the Bible. Those who would restrict the freedom of others are really laying the groundwork to have their own freedoms taken away.

  3. “It’s the same people who are out touting the freedom to own a gun.” Yep. No authoritarian government will let you have the knowledge you need to overthrow it (to borrow from a well-known meme about education). What the book banners and rest of the crowd with a list of rights they want to do away with haven’t figured out yet is that no authoritarian government will let you keep the guns to overthrow it, either.

  4. I am disgusted by both sides of the aisle today. Fifteen politicians from the Progressive Caucus accepted money from AIPAC, the Israeli lobby. Their X handle boasts that they advocate for peace. They sold out!

    The book banners joined with Democrats to force the Chinese company ByteDance to divest from China and become an American company to own TikTok. They’ve called the video app a threat to national security, but there is no evidence that the Chinese have ever manipulated the users. We’re talking about 170 million American users. If any of the users felt manipulated, they could delete their accounts.

    The US government, through both parties, wants to control the choices we have left to make. It’s continuing to close down and become more authoritarian. Trump’s people are now running the GOP, so prepare yourself. Trump just met with Victor Orban, who is a classic authoritarian.

    Banning books is a continuation of the shutdown of our free society. The politicians are pandering to their Evangelical base who wants to make the US a Christian Nation. But it’s not just Evangelicals either. They are joined by conspiracy nuts who try to find hidden meanings in everything. Think right-wing talk radio through Fox News.

    The lunatics are running the asylum.

  5. The most pertinent point in today’s blog: “The hypocrisy is obvious. As one librarian reportedly told Axios, “It’s the same people who are out touting the freedom to own a gun. But you don’t think I have the right to pick a book for my kid?”

    First, people who want to ban books seldom read anything beyond the sports pages of a newspaper. Second, communities that let the “vocal minority” run the show are abetting the worst of us in overthrowing our democracy. Third, it seems that the banned books are showing a significant bump in sales.

    I have 8 books for sale on my website that seemed to have been banned. Have a look at the new best sellers: http://www.vernturner.com

  6. “Even his voters, Republicans, are not liking the fact that they’re seeing book after book pulled off the shelf, so now he’s looking at a way to rewind the tape and wipe his hands clean of a piece of legislation that he championed and pushed through,” said Florida US congressman Maxwell Frost, who introduced the Fight Banned Books Act to the House of Representatives in December.

    “A lot of the damage has already been done, and this limit he’s proposing doesn’t do anything, it’s just lip service. The other thing is, if this is such a pressing issue, if pornographic books and poems are violating the minds of our children and running rampant throughout the state, why would you cap people’s ability to challenge them?”


  7. Two things that have been mentioned by commenters today:
    The Bible actually is one book that hits everything the banners find repulsive. One of my brothers told me that he was starting to read it word for word to his kids. I told him he should rethink that, because much of the Bible just isn’t appropriate for children. He thought I was crazy, but he read ahead and bought a version for children to continue. It contains no end of sex and slaughter. It must be the condemnations of homosexuality that make it okey-dokey, even though Jesus never mentioned it so I don’t understand that particular “Christian” issue.

    The surest way to generate interest in any item, including a book is to limit availability. Everybody loves the forbidden fruit.

  8. It is a short road from book banning to book burning….those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

  9. Todd. Your continuing efforts to convince us that Democratic and Republican politicians are equally bad is disgusting. By doing so, you are carrying water for those who want to destroy democracy and replace it with a fascist regime. I don’t know if you are hoping for a rebellion that over throws the government or what you expect to happen if we all bought into your dystopian views. You are great at excoriating everyone but never tell us explicitly what you are for. Surely you are smart enough to know that voting for RFK Jr. is nothing more than a hollow protest that increases Trump’s chances of being reelected. Is that what you want?
    When you started with the “genocide joe” rants I asked you to tell us what you thought he should do in this tough situation and you ignored the question. Constantly ranting about what you think is wrong without ever explaining your own positions and policies is childish and intellectually dishonest.

  10. Lester makes a good point. Those who ban and those who burn are cut from the same cloth. Sheila also makes a good point, i.e., there are some areas that are so vital to our liberty as individuals that they are to be exempted from governmental control – or should be.

    Thus stopping at red lights involve the safety of others and is rightly subject to control of government, while choosing a book to read for ourselves or for our children is one of those peculiar rights which book burners who are attempting via the facade of government to make such choice for us and is to be rejected since, inter alia, and as Shelia notes, what will be next for them to make their decisions our decisions, one of the forerunners of fascism?

  11. Gerald,
    Great point. Unless things are different where you live, running red lights is now very routine in a culture of “anything goes”/freedom to do whatever I want. Think that maybe a strange clash with our former idea of “common good”….

  12. Lester – Where I live here in rural Bloomington, Indiana, I see an occasional red light runner, but the vast majority do stop for stop lights – so far. As a university town I think book burners are few and far between in these parts – so far. The common good in the streets is subjugated to survival instinct and substantive due process – so far. All are subject to change, which is itself in the process of changing as a measure of human conduct.

  13. I have been thinking about the effects of any religious imposition by government on its people. When I look around the world and count the various governments that are moving to, have become or have been autocratic, Xi, Putin, Assad, Orban, Erdogan, MBS, Netanyahu, Khamenei, Modi, all using the bludgeon of various major religions to wield power over all aspects of the daily lives of their subjects.
    These men and their loyalists use religion to punish their dissenters and political opponents, force everyone to conform to the most extreme tenets of whatever religion affords them the most control and power. Controlling books and education are the most long term strategies for nurturing the seeds of compliance to power in the young.
    Hypocrisy hardly manages to describe it. Choice in any personal, individual decisions are to be suppressed forcefully if those choices do not conform to the supposed religious rules that those autocrats impose for the “good” of them all.
    What to see, read, eat, wear, believe, etc., must conform or will be punished even unto death.
    Who decides matters. Ceding that power of choice to those who grab it by force means that they will always choose what secures power and control to themselves.
    We live in perilous times.

  14. The militant arm of our Monroe County Public Library (Bloomington, Indiana) is seeing if they can met the minimum order quantity to order some hoodies protesting book bans. Here’s an excerpt from the survey. They’d probably like to hear from you:

    { Dear Friends,

    We’ve heard from several of you who have noticed library staff wearing MCPL hooded sweatshirts, and were interested in having one for yourself! We have looked into the cost and feasibility of offering these for sale in the Friends Bookstore.

    We are seeking input on your interest in purchasing a Monroe County Public Library, full-zip, hooded sweatshirt with a custom “Only You Can Prevent Book Bans” logo on the back and the Library logo on the front. This is not a commitment to purchase a hoodie. However, if this is something you might be interested in purchasing at the Friends Bookstore, please fill out this form to indicate the size and color of hoodie you would prefer. This will help us learn what distribution of sizes and colors to offer, and whether there is sufficient interest to purchase these to offer for sale in the Bookstore, as we have to purchase a minimum quantity. Hoodies will likely sell for $45 each.

    The hoodie will be a quality 8.5 oz./yd² (US), 80/20 ring-spun cotton/polyester blend fleece with 100% cotton face and a jersey lined hood.

    You can see sample images of what the hoodie will look like when you go to the Survey Form:
    https://is.gd/FOLhoodieSurvey }

  15. Todd;

    They’ve called the video app a threat to national security, but there is no evidence that the Chinese have ever manipulated the users. We’re talking about 170 million American users. If any of the users felt manipulated, they could delete their accounts.

    But the very meaning of “manipulation” is that the manipulated do not realize that they have been manipulated.

  16. Sooo….. Who will work in an effort to compile a comprehensive list of ALL the books currently banned from school libraries and those being banned from public libraries. When that is compiled step 2 is building collections of banned books and making them available.

Comments are closed.