Fact Check: Ask PolitiFact: Is Hakeem Jeffries right about the GOP’s stance on book-banning?
At a recent press conference, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., took aim at Republicans, accusing the GOP of being eager to ban books in schools.
“Extreme MAGA Republicans want to ban books on the Holocaust,” Jeffries said March 24. “Extreme MAGA Republicans want to ban books on Martin Luther King Jr., Extreme MAGA Republicans want to ban books on the LGBTQ journey, Extreme MAGA Republicans even want to ban a book on Roberto Clemente and baseball. And of course extreme MAGA Republicans want to ban a book on the Native American experience in the United States of America.”
Several readers asked us to look at Jeffries’ statement. It’s hard to assess in this case what Republicans “want” in their hearts, and we’ve found before that what constitutes a “MAGA” Republican is a bit difficult to define.
However, a recent vote cast by all House Republicans provides support for much of Jeffries’ comment, though citing the banning of baseball books is a stretch.
The comment stems from a debate in the House over H.R. 5, the Parents’ Bill of Rights Act. Broadly, the bill would establish rights for parents and guardians regarding the K-12 education of their children. If passed, the bill would require schools and school systems to abide by certain rules in order to receive federal education funding.
Specifically, the bill would require schools to notify parents and guardians of several specified rights regarding the education of their children, including the right to review their school’s curriculum and to “inspect the books and other reading materials in the library of their child’s school.” Also, schools up to eighth grade must obtain parental consent before changing a child’s pronouns or allowing gender-based accommodations.
In a letter to congressional leaders, the American Library Association wrote, “Unquestionably, parents should have a voice in their child’s education. However, we must oppose H.R. 5’s school library provisions, which ironically would lead to more government interference in family decisions regarding voluntary reading,” including creating “a catalyst for more book banning and censorship.”
One reader who contacted PolitiFact about Jeffries’ statement wondered whether it was fair for Jeffries to say that Republicans want to “ban” books as opposed to making sure they were age-appropriate. And given that H.R. 5 refers to parents’ rights to “inspect” books, rather than “banning” then, the reader may have a point.
However, spokespeople for Jeffries and the Democratic staff of the House Education and Workforce Committee pointed to a proposed Democratic amendment to the bill that spoke more directly to that question.
The amendment, sponsored by Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., included a section titled, “Prohibition on Book Bans and Censorship.”
The amendment included two provisions relevant to Jeffries’ comment. One said, “Nothing in this act may be construed to allow the banning or censorship of books in public elementary or public secondary schools.”
The other said, “Nothing in this Act may be construed to authorize any department, agency, officer, or employee of the United States to exercise any direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum or program of instruction of any educational institution, school, or school system, including with respect to Black history; Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander history; Latino history; Native American history; women’s history; LGBTQ+ history; and history of the Holocaust or anti-Semitism.”
The full House considered Bonamici’s amendment on March 23, the day before Jeffries’ remarks. The amendment failed, 203-223.
Because no Republican who cast a vote that day voted in favor of the Bonamici amendment, it supports the notion that Republicans are at least open to banning books. House Republicans had the opportunity to vote for legislative language that said, “Nothing in this act may be construed to allow the banning or censorship of books in public elementary or public secondary schools,” and, to a member, they voted against it. It wasn’t a vote explicitly to ban books, but it was a vote to reject language that would have closed off that possibility.
“House Republicans voted against amending H.R. 5 to ensure it would not ban books or censor librarians,” said Christiana Stephenson, a Jeffries spokesperson. “That vote speaks for itself.”
This vote is what Congress watchers sometimes called a “messaging” amendment; it lets the side that expects to lose the overall vote pin down the winning side with a vote against an otherwise popular position. The vote against a popular position can then be used in subsequent “messaging,” such as Jeffries’ statement.
By voting down the Bonamici amendment, Republicans also declined to protect four of the five examples Jeffries cited in his remark: the Holocaust, Martin Luther King Jr. (through his major role in Black history), LGBTQ issues, and Native American history.
The remaining example Jeffries gave — a book on Roberto Clemente and baseball — is more of a stretch.
Clemente, the Pittsburgh Pirates Hall of Famer who died Dec. 31, 1972, on a humanitarian mission, was Latino, a group that was noted for protection in Bonamici’s amendment. But as a baseball player, it’s not immediately clear that his life would be subject to much controversy.
Jeffries’ office pointed to a list of books compiled by the free-speech group PEN America that includes books for which access was restricted or limited, either permanently or temporarily, by schools or school systems. It includes such titles as “Maus,” Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel about the Holocaust; “I am Martin Luther King, Jr.” by Brad Meltzer; Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” and various LGBTQ+ titles.
PEN’s list did cite the 2022 removal pending investigation of Jonah Winter’s “Roberto Clemente: Pride of the Pittsburgh Pirates” in Duval County, Florida. However, by February 2023, the book was returned to shelves.