PACT is an acronym for a law dedicated to “Preserving American Culture and Traditions.” People who protest against the law are called “seditious subversives” or “traitorous Chinese sympathizers” or “tumors on American society.” The “three pillars” of PACT are outlawing “un-American values and behavior,” requiring all citizens to report “potential threats to society” and protecting children from “environments espousing harmful views.”

“Gender Queer: A Memoir” is one of the two books that a parent in Hancock County wants removed from the local high school. PEN America, which tracks book banning, says “Gender Queer” was the most banned book in the 2021-2022 school year. Associated Press

PACT is fictional, the invention of award-winning American novelist Celeste Ng in last year’s “Our Missing Hearts.” But the American society Ng describes reads more like nonfiction, as if it were the semi-fascist rule that President Biden used in calling out former President Donald Trump’s role in trying to stop the peaceful transfer of power.

As it happens, Maine’s Hancock County, and most especially its Regional School Unit 24, will soon be forced to decide whether two books in the local high school (Sumner Memorial) directly violate the third leg of PACT because they allegedly expose children to harmful views.

Both books that a single Sumner parent wants banned as “inappropriate for students” deal with gay, lesbian and transgender issues. Dirigo High School in Dixfield already banned one of the books that Sumner will review, “Gender Queer: A Memoir” by cartoonist Maia Kobabe, but anti-censorship parents and teachers won the same battle at a Bonny Eagle school board meeting last fall. PEN America, which tracks book banning, says that Kobabe’s book was the most banned book in the 2021-2022 school year. Forty-one percent of all books banned last year dealt with LGBTQ issues.

Just as Maine acts as the tailpipe for America’s pollution – receiving much of the toxic matter generated elsewhere in the U.S. – so too, it appears, Maine is one of the last states to be harassed by Moms for Liberty, a Florida-based, far right wing-subsidized 501(c)(4). It says it has 266 chapters in 44 states that embrace John Adams’ view that “children should be educated and instructed in the principles of freedom.”

Does that freedom include the freedom to learn?

Who decides whether particular books should be banned? We do not know the name of the parent who filed a “challenge” to remove the two books from Sumner, nor do we know whether that parent actually read the two books or just their titles. A parent in Fairfax, Virginia, who wanted Kobabe’s book removed from the high school library admitted that she had not read the book.

Also banned elsewhere in America is writing by Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, William Shakespeare and Judy Blume. Florida, Tennessee, Pennsylvania and Texas lead the nation in book-banning. In all, 729 books were reported banned in 2021, a new record (although the American Library Association said last September that 1,681 bans had already been targeted in 2022 and, thus, will likely set another new record).

“In loco parentis” is the Latin term that refers to the fact that teachers are essentially acting as “parents” during school hours. For Moms for Liberty, parents alone get to decide what is appropriate for their children to read, thus denying professional educators the responsibility of making curricular decisions. It is difficult to imagine a parent who wants a book banned also wants to abrogate “in loco parentis.” Home school, anyone? A religious school? Teachers often make controversial readings optional and, in any case, the student can easily order a banned book from Amazon. Those parents who lack the courage to tell their child that a certain book will not be allowed in the house because mere reading will somehow pollute their child’s thinking and/or behavior instead turn to school teachers and school boards to show courage they themselves have not been able to muster.

For now, the burden of proof to keep controversial books on the library shelves rests with the school district and the school. Why should this burden not rest instead on the parent(s) who lodged the complaint? Hold the parents to the same high standards to which teachers hold their sons and daughters and nonbinary children when they are assigned to write a book report.

The First Amendment and academic freedom require the freedom to learn (as John Adams said) as well as the freedom to teach (as John Dewey said). My remarks here are focused on the former, but the assault on the freedom to teach within the teacher’s discipline by Moms for Liberty and other far-right morality police merits equal attention.

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