Book Bans Get Pushback at SXSW

left-right: Charley Rejsek, Skye Pennyman, Da’Taeveyon Daniels (Photo by Brant Bingamon)

We happened to sit next to Da’Taeveyon Daniels, a 17-year-old high school student from Fort Worth, at Monday’s panel on the book ban crisis – 1984 or 2024? Book Bans. Censorship. The Fight for Democracy.

Daniels told us about the work he’s done to combat censorship over the last three years: Organizing students and teachers to support libraries, founding a group to train students to advocate for their free speech rights, working with others to oppose Texas’ book banning bill, HB 900, during the 2023 legislative session.

After skipping through the résumé (and the above description only scratches the surface of it), Daniels explained that the recent crusade by Christian nationalists to censor books represents an attack on an entire generation. “BIPOC individuals, LGBTQ+ individuals, and students who defy the status quo are being discounted and taken out of the conversation,” Daniels said. “And if you have an entire generation of young folks who have been discounted to the point where they feel they don’t even deserve to be represented in a school library, that’s when the other side ultimately achieves their goal of disemboweling education and turning students into sheep.”

Moments later, Daniels was on stage with Democracy Forward’s Skye Perryman; Charley Rejsek, CEO of BookPeople; and Adam Webb, an Arkansas library director and activist. Webb kicked off the conversation, saying that he and his colleagues in Arkansas have been accused of being pedophiles for the last three years, have lost their jobs, and now are being threatened with jail time by a new state law.

“They threaten us with a year in jail if we make books available to minors,” Webb said. “And in Arkansas, our ‘Harmful to Minors’ law means that if it is harmful to the youngest minor, then it’s not available to any minor. So somebody like Da’Taeveyon, who is 17 years old, couldn’t check out a book if that book was declared harmful to a 3-year-old.”

Rejsek described the absurdity of HB 900, which requires bookstores to hire people to read every book sold to school districts and rate those which include “sexually relevant” material. If HB 900 had been allowed to stand, Rejsek said, it would have meant the end of her business, so she joined a lawsuit last summer which argued the law is blatantly unconstitutional. A series of courts agreed and placed an injunction on the parts of the bill that apply to booksellers. But, Rejsek pointed out, the elements that apply to state action remain in effect.

Left-right: Adam Webb, Charley Rejsek, Skye Pennyman, Da’Taeveyon Daniels (Photo by Brant Bingamon)

Webb and Rejsek’s comments were well-received, but the star of the show was Daniels, who was repeatedly applauded for poised, vibrant remarks describing his work and outlook. “What we’re seeing is school districts like Katy ISD, which is near Houston, Dallas ISD, where we were just at a rally on Saturday, and Fort Worth ISD, where there’s going to be a rally on March 26th, is that school districts are over-implementing HB 900,” Daniels said.

“We’re also seeing not only the banning of the books and the censorship of teachers and librarians, but also attacks on sexual education and attacks with school vouchers, and that’s an effort to defund public schools. So we’re organizing around this because who else is doing it? We’re showing up in these spaces and we’re saying that we matter by, basically, being there. We’re sharing who we are as people and saying we deserve to be represented and not have our identities diminished simply because Susie Jo over here doesn’t like something that’s in a book.”

1984 or 2024? Book Bans. Censorship. The Fight for Democracy

Government and Civic Engagement Track

Monday, March 11, 4pm, Hilton Austin Downtown, Salon B

Catch up with all of The Austin Chronicle‘s SXSW 2024 coverage.