Suburban parents are fighting book bans because of the threat of censorship A conservative campaign to ban certain books from schools is prompting other parents to push back. The issue is often framed as the latest "culture war" battle, but some see democracy itself at stake.

Book bans and the threat of censorship rev up political activism in the suburbs

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Book bans at the school and state levels are galvanizing parents who oppose them. And there's a larger story at play, one that is less about books and more about democratic norms. NPR's Odette Yousef has more.

ODETTE YOUSEF, BYLINE: On a Thursday evening in late January, more than 200 moms and some dads hopped onto a Zoom call. These were parents who've been alarmed by efforts to remove reading materials that deal with race, gender and sexuality from their children's schools. They believe their kids have a right to freely access information. But many didn't know what to do. This online session was about teaching them to organize against the book bans.

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JULIE WOMACK: Fill in the patriotism, right? The right-wing extremists love to wrap themselves in the flag. So - but we talk about free speech, independent thinking, equality. And what they're trying to do is censorship - like, basically the antithesis of that.

YOUSEF: That was Julie Womack, who helped lead the grassroots organization behind the training. It's a left-leaning, Ohio-based network called Red Wine & Blue. It includes moms from all over the country. This year, it's launched a new campaign called Book Ban Busters. Katie Paris founded Red Wine & Blue. She says the network started to become aware of this culturally conservative agenda in schools early last summer.

KATIE PARIS: And they were calling all of it critical race theory. But, in fact, what this turned out to be was an attempt to try to censor teachers, impose a political agenda on our schools and essentially use our kids' education to do just that.

YOUSEF: Calls to ban books are nothing new in America or its schools. At times, voices on the left have driven them. "To Kill A Mockingbird," "The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn" - those are longtime classics that have been challenged for their use of the N-word. But the current fervor around banning books is different. First, there's its scale. The American Library Association says in just three months last year, more than 330 books were challenged around the country. That's twice what it saw in all of 2020.

Also, Paris says this banning effort has had the feel of a manufactured AstroTurf campaign - that even though some claimed it was grassroots, it was actually born of partisan interests.

PARIS: It was clearly organized. It was clearly targeting suburban areas that have - becoming more diverse and shifting ideologically in the last several years. So we knew pretty much off the bat that this was an orchestrated effort.

YOUSEF: A report from UCLA's Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access lends evidence to Paris' observation. These issues are playing out in the most politically contested districts, where white enrollment dropped the fastest over the last two decades. And researchers who track dark money say there's also evidence that this controversy was manufactured by powerful interests.

RALPH WILSON: The more I sort of started looking at these groups, I just started seeing really overt connections to the kinds of organizations that do this routinely.

YOUSEF: That's Ralph Wilson, with a group called the Corporate Genome Project. Wilson has studied false grassroots operations. Recently, he published a book about the so-called free speech debates in higher education. That's where conservatives were claiming a few years ago that a liberal bias on college campuses restricted their free speech. In fact, Wilson said the issue was created whole cloth by organizations tied to the ultra-wealthy libertarian Koch donor network. He says the controversy today over book bans features many of the same players.

WILSON: It's supposed to sort of seem like an organic, grassroots operation. But when you look under the surface, it's the same groups over and over. It's the same litigation groups. It's the same law firms. It's the same PR firms. And it's the same AstroTurf groups.

YOUSEF: Wilson says one example of these connections can be seen in model legislation that a conservative parent group called No Left Turn in Education has written. It's a template for local legislation that would, among other things, impose criminal penalties on teachers who discuss race in certain ways. Sections of it mirror word for word a model bill issued by a Koch-connected think tank. No Left Turn did not respond to questions from NPR about its relationship with that policy organization. But in states where similar legislation has passed, educators have said this campaign has had a chilling effect on how they can approach topics of slavery in the U.S. and its enduring legacy. These efforts to control how teachers discuss race in schools are deeply disturbing to political scientists who study so-called memory laws.

GEORGE SOROKA: Memory laws in the sense of official prohibitions on how the past can be talked about are very much a modern phenomenon. And until quite recently, they were primarily a European phenomenon.

YOUSEF: This is George Soroka, a lecturer on government at Harvard. He says there's been a burgeoning of memory laws in countries like Poland and Hungary, mostly to downplay accounts of how some of their countrymen were complicit in the Holocaust. Soroka says the political context in those countries is similar to that in the U.S. in one key way.

SOROKA: This is part and parcel of a crisis of democracy. We see this with the rise of populism. We see this with the rise of more xenophobic types of nationalism - this idea that how the past is remembered can be weaponized and can be specified by governmental decrees.

YOUSEF: Soroka says this trend in America and other countries is deeply troubling. It's not just the latest chapter in the culture wars, but perhaps the next chapter in the unraveling of democracy. Odette Yousef, NPR News.

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