The number of book challenges and complaints have reached record levels nationwide, including here in Massachusetts.

According to the American Library Association, Massachusetts saw 45 attempts to censor books and other library resources in 2022 — the fourth highest number of any state. That number is even higher, according to the Massachusetts Library Association's own survey, which reported 78 formal and informal challenges to books and programming last year. The surge in attempts to restrict access to library materials has alarmed free speech advocates, led to new legislation at the State House, and brought renewed attention to a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling about censorship in schools.

The towns of Dighton, Ludlow and Sturbridge have all been on the receiving end. Most of those attempts were to censor materials or library programming about race and sexuality — the same topics that vocal conservative groups have for years sought to limit.

Discussions bubbled up in Dighton after the public library promoted "Seeing Gender," a book about gender identity and expression. Community members met with library officials and also lined up at a board of trustees meeting to argue that "sexual" and "politically inflammatory" books should be separated from where children may see them.

In Ludlow, a controversial proposal to alter the types of books and media allowed in school libraries, and to shift decision-making away from librarians and to the school committee, generated significant debate before the town's school committee ultimately voted against it last month.

During a school committee meeting in May, Ludlow parent Bella Soares spoke in favor of the proposed policy change and pushed back against criticism that removing books would discriminate against students who identify as LGBTQ+.

“Get this all through your heads," Soares said. "You guys are the ones that are making it [about] LGBTQ. It has nothing to do with that. It has to do with pornographic books in our school — drugs, rape, obscenity books. That's what we're trying to eliminate here.”

And in Sturbridge, frustration over a public library-hosted event with a drag queen prompted critics to ask the Town Meeting to defund the library.

James Lonergan, director of the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners, said it’s a difficult time for library staff. He’s had library directors call him in tears from harassment.

They're trying to do good work. They're public servants. And frankly, they're being called names, or their ethics are being questioned,” Lonergan said.

Ruth Bourquin, a senior attorney at the ACLU of Massachusetts, said the issue over what’s appropriate for school content is coming from a small number of conservative groups that describe themselves as defending parental rights and protecting children.

“There's an uptick because there's a very well organized minority of people who seem to think they have nothing better to do with their lives but to try to control what other people's children can read in school libraries,” Bourquin said.

These debates are nothing new

Bourquin said all the arguments about free speech and parental control being used today hearken back to a decades-old U.S. Supreme Court case.

In that 1982 decision, Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District v. Pico, the high court held that the First Amendment limits the power of school libraries to remove books because of their content. It was the first time — and still the only time — the Supreme Court heard a case about censorship in school libraries.

For Steven Pico, the lead plaintiff in the case, today’s efforts to ban books are eerily similar to those he experienced over 40 years ago.

"They call the case the 'Pico' case, which is very interesting, which is why I take it very personally," Pico told GBH News.

A man with a goatee smiles slightly as he stands in front of a large tile mural of Egyptian gods. He is wearing a fleece vest and plaid scarf.
Steven Pico was a plaintiff in the only book banning case to have reached the Supreme Court, back in 1982. He continues to push for freedom of speech and expression today.
Courtesy of Steven Pico

The case originated in 1977, when he was a 17-year-old high school student in Levittown, New York. A parent's group had complained about 11 books in the school district's libraries, including Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five” and Langston Hughes’s “Best Short Stories by Negro Writers.” The school board then removed the contested books from library shelves, calling them “anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic and just plain filthy.”

Pico joined with four other students to challenge the school board’s decision. He said it was his patriotic duty.

“This is a democracy, and we have majoritarian rights,” Pico said, reflecting on his decision decades ago. “And we've come to a point in our country where people think and feel that they can make decisions for everybody else, like removing a book.”

Andrea Fiorillo, co-chair of the Massachusetts Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom Social Responsibility Committee, said most people are against censorship, but they need to make their voices heard as much as those pushing for it.

“We are at an inflection point in our democracy where democratic norms and freedoms are being challenged,” said Fiorillo.

"We are at an inflection point in our democracy where democratic norms and freedoms are being challenged."
Andrea Fiorillo

On June 30, state Sen. Julian Cyr filed an act regarding free expression that bolsters existing state laws. Cyr said the legislation would prevent book removal, media and materials due to personal or political views in both public and school libraries, and protect librarians from retaliation. The Massachusetts House has also advanced a similar bill, An Act Ensuring Freedom to Read in the Commonwealth.

"We must continue to champion our values of equity and belonging, that we cannot allow small-minded bans or politically opportunistic censorship to interfere with the right to read,” Cyr said.

The ACLU of Massachusetts has also sent a letter to the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents and the Massachusetts Association of School Committees highlighting their legal obligations when it comes to books challenges. Bourquin said she doesn’t believe most schools are caving to book challenges, but instead follow a thoughtful review process that usually results in retaining the materials in question.

And on the national level, Pico continues to push for freedom of speech and expression.

“It seems like history is repeating itself on steroids,” Pico said. “And that is what's happening. But I'm optimistic, and I'll tell you why: because young people out there are listening now. They're aware that they have rights and there are things that they can do to combat censorship.”