Freedom of Expression

Press release R235/22

The SRFOE calls on the authorities of the United States to generate the conditions for a broad, plural, and robust deliberation in learning spaces and academic environments

October 20, 2022

Washington D.C. – The Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression (SRFOE) of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) expresses its concern over reports suggesting an increase in literary censorship in the United States, particularly in K-12 schools. The Office of the Rapporteur calls on authorities, at all levels of government, to create the necessary conditions to uphold the right to freedom of expression and access to information of students and teachers, as well as of researchers, writers, and illustrators who contribute to the development of the literary ecosystem.

According to public reports, book availability in U.S. school libraries may have been significantly reduced due to the increasing censorship of various literary works between July 2021 and June 2022; at least 2,532 books have been presumably banned during this period, including 1,648 unique titles. Analyses carried out by civil society organizations and the media indicate that most banned books address LGBTQI+ persons and issues, the fight against racism, sexual & reproductive rights and education, as well as social activism. As reported by PEN America, instances of book banning were registered in 138 of approximately 13,000 school districts in 32 of 50 states, affecting the access to information of nearly four million of approximately 56 million students in more than five thousand of approximately 130,000 schools. Similarly, these bans seem to have impacted the works of at least 1,261 authors, 290 illustrators and 18 translators. Per reported data, at least 139 additional bans have possibly occurred since July 2022.

Likewise, in relation to the aforementioned reports on restrictions to literature, the Office of the Special Rapporteur documented in its 2021 Annual Report several bill proposals and enacted legislation that attempt to limit the circulation of critical perspectives on racism and gender in learning spaces. This Office also notes that such censorship could have originated in parents and communities, in addition to administrative decisions, or legislators or other public officials, purportedly ensuring non-discrimination against racial and religious majorities in the United States.

As the IACHR and its Office of the Special Rapporteur have asserted on many occasions, freedom of expression is an essential right to exercise other rights, including the right to education, access to culture, freedom of religion or belief, and freedom of peaceful assembly and association, among others. As the SRFOE has maintained in its reports, "the lack of freedom of expression is a cause that contributes to the disregard of other human rights" and, therefore, "the preservation of freedom of expression is a necessary condition for the peaceful and free functioning of democratic societies in the Americas."

Article XII of the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man provides that "every person has the right to education, which should be based on the principles of liberty, morality and human solidarity," understood by Inter-American jurisprudence as essential values for the preservation of pluralism and tolerance, basic pillars of democratic societies. It also states that "every person has the right to freely profess a religious faith, and to manifest and practice it both in public and in private." As such, the States must generate the conditions for there to be a true public deliberation–one that considers the diversity of society–on matters that concern all citizens, contemplating the breadth and plurality of voices, to process the tensions between rights and public controversies in an open and peaceful fashion, respectful of human rights. In the words of the IACHR, "full and free discussion prevents a society from paralyzing and prepares it for the tensions and frictions that destroy civilizations. A free society, today and tomorrow, is one that can openly engage in rigorous public debate about itself." For this Office, the measures aimed at banning books in schools, instead of giving rise to a broad and robust debate on relevant issues that may be controversial for various people or groups of people, directly impede the possibilities of democratic deliberation.

In this regard, the duty of the States to guarantee the right to freedom of expression also implies contributing to the formation of a citizenry which "is willing to discuss with others the reasons that enable it to support a theory or make a decision", as a report by the Office of the Special Rapporteur pointed out. Making it difficult to discuss issues of public relevance in academic environments, which par excellence shape citizens and prepare children for life in society, undermines the potential of education to develop the values of understanding, solidarity, respect, and responsibility.

At the same time, the SRFOE highlights that education is a way to transmit messages that eradicate prejudices and build more inclusive and tolerant societies. As a report from the Office of the Special Rapporteur on Economic, Social, Cultural and Environmental Rights (SRESCER) explains, States are called upon to guarantee the preservation of the distinctive forms of expression of groups historically discriminated against and excluded from public debate, thereby promoting the collective memory of these people and contributing to tolerance and respect in society.

The SRFOE calls for reflection and encourages the State to distance itself from actions that contribute to the deterioration of public discourse and the restriction of freedom of expression by taking all the measures within its reach so that diversity can be integrated into the different spheres of society, including education. As this Office has repeatedly affirmed, this right protects not only the dissemination of ideas and information received favorably or considered inoffensive or indifferent, but also those that offend, shock or disturb the State or any sector of the population.

The Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression is an office created by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to stimulate the hemispheric defense of the right to freedom of thought and expression, considering its fundamental role in the consolidation and development of the democratic system.