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Pennsylvania School Board President Sworn In on Stack of Banned Books

The board member said she wanted to demonstrate “the commitment I’ve had to fighting…for our students’ freedom to read.”

A newly inaugurated school board president in a Philadelphia suburb took an oath of office Monday evening by placing her hand on a stack of books that have been targeted by book bans.

Karen Smith, an incumbent member of the Central Bucks School District board, won reelection in November, helping to lead Democrats in taking control of the board from Republicans who had sought to implement restrictions in the district’s libraries.

Smith was formerly a Republican member of the board, but switched parties in 2021 due to anti-LGBTQ actions taken by the Republican-led board. During the meeting, she explained why she chose a stack of banned books (rather than a Bible) to swear herself in.

“I’m not particularly religious,” she said. “The Bible doesn’t hold significant meaning for me, and given everything that has occurred in the last couple of years, the banned books, they do mean something to me at this point.”

Smith added that she wanted to demonstrate “the commitment I’ve had to fighting for the books, and for our students’ freedom to read.”

At the meeting on Monday, Smith was named the board’s president, and the board lifted policies implemented by the formerly Republican board, including a library policy that led to 60 books challenged, and two books being outright banned.

The books Smith used as part of her swearing-in ceremony included:

  • “Night,” by Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace prize winner Elie Wiesel;
  • “The Bluest Eye,” by Black author Toni Morrison, which deals with topics of race, beauty, sexual assault, and more;
  • “Lily and Dunkin,” a story about a transgender girl and a boy with bipolar disorder who are friends;
  • and “Flamer,” a graphic novel by Mike Curato, which depicts the thoughts and feelings of an eighth-grade boy who discovers he is gay at summer camp.

Before the meeting, supporters of Smith and other Democrats on the Central Bucks School Board celebrated the fact that the board was changing hands during a tailgate party outside of the building where the meeting was set to take place.

“We get a sigh of relief that people want to work with us and care about the students and, like I said, the staff teachers community at large,” the organizer of the tailgate party said.

“To all our students I am continuously impressed by you and inspired by you and you will remain my guiding force thank you cheers,” Smith told her supporters.

Smith’s decision to use the banned books as part of her swearing-in ceremony — as well as the successful change of leadership on the board itself — is emblematic of a broader conversation happening in districts across the country, where conservative parents and board members, often in conjunction with far right groups like Moms for Liberty, are seeking to censor content that touches upon LGBTQ and/or racial issues.

A report from the American Library Association (ALA) earlier this year demonstrated that recent attempts to ban books in public and school libraries in the U.S. have been outpacing efforts from previous years. Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, decried those actions in a report that was released in September.

“Groups with a political agenda have turned their crusade to public libraries, the very embodiment of the First Amendment in our society,” Caldwell-Stone said. “This places politics over the well-being and education of young people and everyone’s right to access and use the public library.”

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