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Proposed K-12 book banning legislation may influence Michigan’s 2022 gubernatorial election

Updated: Apr 29, 2023

Sasha K. Kindred - Staff Writer - News

The photo above was originally taken by Bridge Michigan journalist Jonathan Oosting.

Last week was annual Banned Books Week, and high-profile Michigander and GOP gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon had a lot to say regarding her plans for book bans if she were to become Michigan’s new governor. According to Michigan Advance reporter Allison R. Donahue, during her “Get Schools Back to Basics” speech, Dixon claimed that if she were elected as governor, she would push for state legislation banning pornographic books in K-12.

“I would take a look at the books that we are seeing that are pornographic and make a decision on what we do to make sure that we are not having children reading pornographic — or having a teacher read — pornographic material to children or a child in school,” she stated, outside of the Michigan Department of Education in Lansing on a Tuesday.

In addition to advocating for legislation for school book bans, Michigan Bridge journalist Jonathan Oosting reports that Dixon also calls for eliminating LGBTQ+ teacher training videos that instruct teachers not to share student’s gay or transgender identification with parents if this could result in abuse, neglect, or homelessness. Oosting writes that Dixon argues "radical political activists'' have made Michigan schools "laboratories for social experiments,” and the proposed removal of these videos is “...about protecting children, protecting parents’ rights and getting our schools back to the basics of teaching kids how to read and write.”

Current Michigan governor and lead Democrat candidate of the November gubernatorial election, Gretchen Whitmer, has remained silent about eliminating LGBTQ teacher training videos in schools.

Individuals who approve of book bans argue that minors–especially very young children–should not be exposed to explicit or obscene material during school hours, especially since parents cannot control or monitor what instructors are teaching their children. With that being said, the crux of the controversy does not necessarily lie in whether pornography should be prohibited in school settings–but rather what content qualifies as ‘pornographic’ to begin with.

What exactly constitutes as pornographic or obscene imagery has been historically hard to define. Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institute (LII) reports that the majority of courts today use the Miller Test to measure obscenity, which focuses on three main criteria: (1) whether the average citizen would think the piece of work appeals to puritan interests, (2) whether the work describes sexual acts in an offensive way, and (3) whether the content offers any artistic, literary, political, or scientific value in spite of including sexual acts.

When Donahue asked Dixon how she defined pornographic material, she responded with, “two naked people, and they are acting out a sexual act, and multiple different sexual acts.” However, Dixon also stated during her conference that she wanted to remove discussions of LGBTQ-related topics from K-12 schools and leave discussion of these topics to the parents to avoid obscenity, even though these topics do not inherently concern sexually explicit material. It is for this reason that opponents of school book bans argue that book bans pose a threat to civil rights.

Opponents of school book bans argue that book bans not only violate the freedom of speech, but also predominantly target authors that write about their experiences as people of color, religious minorities, or members of the LGBTQ+ community. The American Library Association (ALA), the primary promoter of Banned Books Week, notoriously condemns book bans in education of any sort and advocates for the freedom of students to read. On a more local scale, the University of Michigan-Dearborn’s Mardigian Library has made their stance clear. Any student who has visited the library recently knows that they have the option of viewing or checking out any of the ‘banned’ books displayed on the first floor, ranging from Ralph Ellisons’ Invisible Man to Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer.

Regardless of the public’s conflicting opinions on school book bans, the rate of book bans will likely continue to rise. PEN America, a nonprofit organization that claims to be committed to protecting the right of free speech under the First Amendment, conducted a nationwide book ban report during July 2021 to June 2022. The report found that during these months, a total of 1,648 books were banned in 138 school districts and 32 states. Michigan ranked sixth place for having the most school book bans, with a whopping total of 41 books condemned in 4 school districts during the 2021-2022 school year alone.

If there is any concrete piece of information that one can draw from this discourse, it is that book bans are here to stay for a while, and thus have the potential to influence future election turnout and outcomes. Where should the line be drawn, if one should be drawn at all? Are LGBTQ+ topics inherently pornographic and inappropriate for K-12 school settings? Are novels about race in America or the Holocaust too mature or intense for young audiences? Are school book bans an issue of protecting children or of endangering civil rights? These are all questions that voters will need to contemplate and weigh while making their decisions as they head to the polls this upcoming November 8th.


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