How I Stay Hopeful About the Future of Free Speech | Scales on Censorship

Pat Scales answers readers' questions and shows how successful defenses of free speech pay off.

You see a lot of censorship cases and hear from a lot of frustrated librarians and teachers. How do you stay hopeful?
Free speech advocacy groups across the nation are appearing before library boards, demanding that the freedom to read be protected. DAYLO, a Beaufort, SC, youth advocacy group, launched a campaign to force a school board to follow the district reconsideration policy for 97 titles removed from classrooms and libraries. To date, three-fourths of the titles have been reinstated, and the others are being reconsidered. I just learned about a middle school book club in a bookstore in Ames, IA, focusing on books that build empathy. Some of the titles used aren’t available in schools. I’ve read numerous news articles about young people who spoke before school boards and engaged in peaceful marches for the freedom to read.

Am I hopeful? Yes, because I believe in young people. They will get the job done if we nudge them along.

Also read: "A Student’s List of 'Evil' Books" | Scales on Censorship]

There is a very active chapter of Moms for Liberty in my city. They have circulated a list of books they want out of the schools and public library. The school and library boards seem to cater to this group. What can educators do?
I understand your frustration; boards seem frightened of these groups. But your hands aren’t tied. Suggestions:

• Organize a Read Freely group.

• Speak to civic organizations about the issues.

• Engage parents in good conversations about books.

• Solicit people you know to write letters to the editor of your local newspaper.

• Recruit people to speak before the school and public library boards.

• Talk about the issues in neighborhood groups.

• Encourage young people to express their opinions.

• Ask local businesses to distribute a list of books that have been removed from area classrooms and libraries.

• Take your cause to social media.

Let people know that you stand for the freedom to read. Citizens against Moms for Liberty influenced several recent local elections. Take a look at Bucks County, PA, to see their success. Speak up and speak loudly. This is the way we win this battle.

My elementary school principal has issued so many warnings about books used in the classroom that teachers feel threatened and no longer want to read aloud. Those who still do have asked me to make a list of safe books. How do I answer?
People can object to almost any title. For this reason, I advise you to inform teachers that attempting to create such a list is going down a dangerous path. Recommend high-interest books that have engaging characters and exciting plots. You might also suggest titles that parallel a topic that the class is studying. But never recommend a book to a teacher that you haven’t already read, and teachers should never read aloud something they haven’t read. This falls into the category of “best practice.”

If a parent complains about a read-aloud you suggested, handle it as you would a complaint about a unit in the language arts curriculum. Allow the child to leave the classroom while the teacher is reading aloud. Most parents won’t choose this option. A teacher should never stop reading a book because one person complained. Remain confident and firm about the book selection. And let the principal know the benefits of reading aloud.

What is the proper response to a fourth grade boy who says his grandmother doesn’t want him reading “Captain Underpants” books? She hasn’t challenged them, but I fear that she might.
Don’t fear the grandmother. It doesn’t sound like she will lodge a challenge. Make the boy feel as comfortable as possible. It isn’t his fault if his grandmother disapproves of the series. Say to him: “There are so many good books in the library, and I know we can find something you and your grandmother will like.” Celebrate his choice. My bet is the boy will read “Captain Underpants” at school and never let his grandmother know.

Pat Scales is the former chair of ALA’s Intellectual Freedom Committee. Send questions to

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