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How the youngest member is Congress is pushing back against book bans

By Michael Jones

Rep. Maxwell Frost, the 26-year-old who made history in 2022 as the first member of Gen Z to be elected to Congress, has seen first-hand how problematic some of Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida’s signature policies have been.

From an extreme six-week abortion ban he’s touted on the campaign trail and debate stage to laws that loosened gun restrictions in a state home to the deadliest mass shooting at a high school in US history, DeSantis has advanced an ultraconservative agenda that’s out of step with the majority of Americans.

Another alarming legislative priority of the DeSantis era: Book bans.

40 percent of the 3,000 books banned this year have been in Florida. These book bans attempt to erase Black history, marginalize the LGBTQ+ experience and limit students’ exposure to the role of activism in securing hard-won civil rights.

They also contribute to a knowledge gap only exacerbated by the rise and disinformation and misinformation on social apps, many of which exploit perverse incentive structures that disregard history, expertise and facts.

“The problem with these book bans is we go down the slippery slope where there will be a point that comes up where anyone can object to maybe news sources that are used in the classroom—‘woke’ news sources, which is all of them I guess now?” Frost, whose district includes Orlando, told me in a brief interview on the House steps of the US Capitol this past Monday. “It is very concerning [the impact of these bans] on our ability to read, but also our freedom to consume information or know what’s going on, especially for our students.”

To respond to book bans at home and across the country, Frost and a group of House Democrats introduced the Fight Book Bans Act this month, which would provide $15 million over five years to help school boards and districts cover the expenses they incur while pushing back against book bans.

Specifically, the bill— which Frost’s office says has the support of 50 members of Congress—would enable the Education Department to provide grants to school districts to cover expenses they might have incurred while fighting off a bad book ban. This could include the cost of retaining legal representation, the cost of traveling to hearings on the bans and the logistics for those hearings, or the cost of obtaining expert guidance while trying to fight off a book ban.

“Because how is it that we can expect our school districts—who are doing their best to retain teachers, provide school supplies and ensure that schools are maintained—and students are supported with limited funding?” Frost said at a press conference to announce the legislation.

In addition to Frost’s bill, which Frost’s office says has the support of 50 members of Congress, Rep. Ayanna Pressley, a House progressive whose district encompasses most of Boston, introduced separate legislation focused on counteracting the rise of book bans by requiring schools to provide students with inclusive learning environments.

Under Pressley’s proposal—titled the Books Save Lives Act—primary and secondary schools would be staffed with a trained librarian. Additionally, discriminatory book bans would be classified as violations of federal civil rights laws. The Government Accountability Office, known as the “congressional watchdog,” also would be directed to deliver a report on the effect of book bans on underrepresented communities.

“Rather than honor the brilliance and diversity of our authors, illustrators, and librarians, Republicans are focused on further marginalizing people who already face systemic discrimination in our society—including people of color, the LGBTQ+ community, religious minorities, and people with disabilities—through discriminatory book bans,” Pressley said in a statement. “Every reader deserves to see themselves reflected in our literature—and our bill would help make that a reality for all.”

Frost explained that once school districts started to discover workarounds to the first iterations of these book bans that returned prohibited titles to the shelves, states like Florida began to preempt the school districts and their ability to create their process. As a result, it’s expensive to get books back on the shelves for school boards in Republican states that are already historically underfunded.

Frost told me his anti-book ban bill is the first step in a concerted effort to arm disempowered institutions and communities with the tools and resources they need to take on these slick attacks against democracy.

“Vagueness is the strategy. Because they want it to apply to specific things when they decide—that’s all these book bans,” he said. “They’re effective because they’re all vague. That’s how they work.”

Michael Jones is an independent Capitol Hill correspondent and contributor for COURIER. He is the author of Once Upon a Hill, a newsletter about Congressional politics.

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