The American Family Survey is an annual, nationwide study of 3,000 Americans by the Deseret News and the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University. See full survey report.

The American Family Survey is an annual, nationwide study of 3,000 Americans by the Deseret News and the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University. See full survey report.

Libraries have long dealt with requests to remove books or other materials patrons deemed objectionable.

But in the past two years, the number of challenges has risen to unprecedented levels, which American Library Association President Lessa Kananiʻopua Pelayo-Lozada attributes to “coordinated, national efforts to silence marginalized or historically underrepresented voices.”

Such efforts “deprive all of us — young people, in particular — of the chance to explore a world beyond the confines of personal experience,” Pelayo-Lozada said.

Meanwhile, parent groups such as Moms for Liberty or Utah Parents United demand that school or library boards remove books they deem objectionable from their collections.

Utah Parents United’s Laverna in the Library campaign, urges Utah parents to join her “in her quest to rid Utah schools of sexually explicit books,” according to its website.

A local chapter of Moms for Liberty in Brevard, Florida, urged its local school board to remove dozens of titles, describing some as “racially divisive,” others containing LGBTQ themes, references to abortion, criticism of Christianity and explicit sex scenes, according to media reports.

“Slaughterhouse-Five,” a satirical blend of anti-war literature and science fiction by Kurt Vonnegut, was among the titles the Florida affiliate sought to remove.

The latest American Family Survey indicates that just 12% of Americans agree that books should be removed from libraries if a parent objects.

Moreover, the eighth annual national survey of 3,000 adults found only 16% believe public school libraries include inappropriate books on their shelves.

“The public really doesn’t like book banning,” said Jeremy C. Pope, professor of political science at Brigham Young University and co-investigator for the survey.

Embracing different voices

The national survey, conducted by YouGov from Aug. 8 to Aug. 15, was commissioned for the Deseret News and the BYU Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 1.9 percentage points.

Among all people surveyed, 65% said it was important for public school libraries to represent a variety of perspectives about controversial issues — even if it makes some people uncomfortable.

Although the survey revealed education and partisan differences regarding support for diverse library collections, most people polled support including a variety of perspectives on controversial topics.

American Family Survey: Is marriage dying? Poll ponders pressure points in finance and relationships
American Family Survey: Support for monthly payments to families drops, despite inflation woes

For example, 74% of college graduates support diverse library collections, while 58% of people with high school educations or less likewise support them.

Liberal Democrats expressed the highest level of support for diverse library collections at 89%, while conservative Republicans indicated the lowest level of support at 46%.

Brooke Stephens, curriculum director for Utah Parents United, said the survey results would have been different had the respondents read passages from books that rating systems have identified as objectionable or sexually explicit.

“People should browse the books rated 5/5 at to make their own decision on if these materials should be in public school libraries or not. The problem of sexually explicit books in schools is worse than most people can imagine,” Stephens said.

The survey did not get into specifics about whether books with sexually explicit material should be banned from school libraries.

A separate survey question asked who should have the final say on books that are assigned in English class. At 32%, parents ranked higher than either classroom teachers or students. And 50% of survey participants said parents should have the final say in what schools teach about sexual orientation and gender identity.

Student James Delliskade matches books with descriptions at a banned book display at the University of Utah’s Marriott Library in Salt Lake City on Friday, Sept. 23, 2022. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Censoring books

Despite survey results that indicate that most Americans resist book bans and support diverse content in libraries, more than 1,600 book titles were banned throughout the 2021-22 school year, according to a new report by Pen America, “Banned in the USA: The Growing Movement to Censor Books in Schools.”

Nor do conservatives have the lock on censoring books. In the Northeast, banning books is largely a progressive parent phenomenon.

The Pen America report attributes the surge in book bans to a network of local political and advocacy groups targeting books with LGBTQ+ characters and storylines, and books involving characters of color.

The literary organization, which advocates for freedom of expression, calls the movement “deeply undemocratic.” 

American Family Survey: When it comes to abortion, there are the extremes — and then everybody else
American Family Survey: What worries American families

Lauren Liang, associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Utah, said efforts to remove books from libraries are often driven by fear of change or a perceived need to control collections of children’s books that for “years and years and years” have featured characters who are white, middle class and cisgendered.

“At this point, we still have less than a quarter of the books that are published each year about people of color,” Liang said.

Fewer yet are titles with LGBTQ+ characters and storylines.

“So we’re not letting kids see themselves in books. It’s just so sad because that is such an issue in children’s and young adult books that we don’t have enough representation of diversity. We’re not inclusive,” Liang said.

Transgender students

Challenges to library books and instructional materials are just two ways that schools have become battlefields for society’s culture wars. 

The American Family Survey also revealed low levels of support for transgender students in schools.

For instance, a majority of people polled said transgender athletes should only be able to participate in high school sports as the gender they were assigned at birth.

According to The New York Times, 18 states have enacted laws or issued statewide rules that bar or limit transgender sports participation at public schools.

Earlier this year, the Utah Legislature passed legislation that bans transgender girls from competing in girls' high school sports. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, says her intention has been “to protect and preserve girls’ sports.”

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, a Republican, vetoed the bill but the GOP-majority Utah Legislature called itself into session to override the veto. A lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the law has been filed and a state district court judge has temporarily blocked the ban. Another section of the law, which establishes a player eligibility commission, stands while the lawsuit proceeds.

Asked to comment on the survey results, Birkeland said the responses indicate support for her policy position, which passed largely along party lines.

“In fact, had the question been asked in an even simpler form, I believe (those responding) ‘strongly agree’ would have been greater,” Birkeland said.

“Most people are not concerned about someone being born female playing on boys’ teams. So, the real question to understand where the people of Utah are on this issue is to ask ‘Should someone born male be allowed to compete against those born female?’ When asked that question, the vast majority — all along the political spectrum — agree that they should not be allowed to compete against girls,” Birkeland said.


The American Family Survey results indicated lukewarm support for other issues with respect to LGBTQ+ students.

Only 39% of Americans surveyed said teachers should use students’ preferred pronouns, while half said they disagreed with allowing public school students to use the bathroom of their choice.

The results of the American Family Survey appear to indicate that many Americans’ opinions are in flux on those issues. Opinions vary by age and political party but differences by race, gender and education tend to be somewhat smaller.

Women, people of color and college graduates expressed the least opposition to transgender athletes participating in high school sports.

But only liberal Democrats expressed majority support for preferred pronouns and bathroom choice.

Liang said the antipathy to LGBTQ+ students reflected in the survey is parallel to efforts to remove books and materials from school libraries.

“Ironically, high school kids could (not) care less. They’re very supportive.”

What to teach

Efforts by college students training to be teachers, and those working as educators and seeking graduate degrees, to create welcoming classrooms sometimes clash with parents demanding to inspect their instructional materials and review their lesson plans.

One high school teacher was in tears when she reached out to Liang recently after a book in her classroom library was challenged.

Liang said she tries to assure teachers that if they know what they’re teaching, why they’re teaching it and that it’s tied to the school curriculum, they should be fine. 

Some school districts require teachers to select books from a list vetted by administrators. Even then, some parent groups have challenged certain titles.

When it comes to books assigned in English classes, nearly one-third of the survey respondents said parents should have the final say on what is taught in public schools when controversies arise, while 24% said it should be the teachers’ call.

Leaving the decision to state governments or the federal government polled the lowest, at about 4% each.

Although the most popular answer was giving parents the final say when controversies arise, getting parents to agree poses challenges, BYU’s Pope said.

“So effectively you have to have a kind of democratic process,” like schools boards and legislatures making decisions, he said.

Defining the goal

Groups such as Utah Parents United say they want to ensure children aren’t exposed to sexually explicit material, but some librarians maintain that the objections of parent groups are less about objectionable materials falling into the hands of children as it is exerting control over institutions.

Libraries tend to be underutilized, librarians lament. When youths want information, regardless of the subject, they typically search the internet on their phones or computers.

“School libraries, particularly, are a soft target. In the state of Utah, not every school has a licensed librarian. Not every district has a policy to protect the school library and so it’s been easy pickings,” said Catherine Bates, teacher librarian at Brighton High School in Cottonwood Heights, during a recent panel discussion at the University of Utah during Banned Books Week.

Displayed photos at an exhibit titled “Practicing Freedom at the U of U” are pictured at the University of Utah’s Marriott Library in Salt Lake City on Friday, Sept. 23, 2022. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

When schools or school districts don’t have policies, “that makes it really easy for parents or the school board or an administration to just go in and say, ‘We’re just going to take these out,’ ” said Bates, who in the past year has faced six challenges waged by parents to remove books from the school’s library.

Nationally, parents' rights groups tend “to follow the same playbook,” by presenting librarians or public school administrators lists of hundreds of titles they “are demanding to be removed from libraries,” said Katie Wegner, Salt Lake County Library assistant branch manager and co-chairwoman of its reconsideration committee, during the recent panel discussion.

Groups such as Utah Parents United offer instructional videos to teach parents how to challenge library and classroom material or speak out at public meetings. The organizations also endorse political candidates who share their point of view.

“The goal and the funding behind these groups is really to attack public institutions and defund them,” Wegner said.

Utah Parents United’s Stephens replied, “What benefit is there to us in discrediting the schools our children attend? The purpose is to push for neutral schools that all children can attend.”

History of racism

View Comments

The American Family Survey also explored Americans’ views on teaching the history of racism in the United States.

Among all responding to the survey, 64% agreed or strongly agreed that schools should teach the history of racism.

Slightly more women than men agreed, with 62% of men and 65% of women agreeing or strongly agreeing with such instruction.

The highest rates of agreement were among respondents ages 18-29 at 73%; college graduates at 72.8%; and Blacks and Hispanics at 75% and 69%, respectively.

Mallory Seidlitz, of Marriott Library marketing, looks over a banned book display at the University of Utah library in Salt Lake City on Friday, Sept. 23, 2022. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Join the Conversation
Looking for comments?
Find comments in their new home! Click the buttons at the top or within the article to view them — or use the button below for quick access.