CHAMPAIGN — Testifying before the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary made Emily Knox nervous at first, but soon it was just like teaching in a lecture hall.
“I’ve stood in front of hundreds of undergrads talking, so it’s really OK,” Knox said.
When Sen. Dick Durbin’s office reached out to the National Coalition Against Censorship and the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom for a witness on book bans, both recommended Knox.
Knox is a professor of library and information sciences at the University of Illinois and is the author of “Book Banning in 21st-Century America.”
Her book was published in 2015, but she’s working on a second edition.
While her argument about why people ban books has not changed, she has more evidence to add from recent book banning cases.
Knox told the Senate committee that almost all books targeted for censorship can be categorized as “diverse,” and that people attack books about LGBTQ+ identities or people of color based on misunderstandings about the content of those books.
“People are always more than their sexual or gender identity,” Knox told the committee. “Telling only a triumphant story about our nation’s history of genocide, slavery, Jim Crow and intergenerational trauma means that we do not confront the truth of our origins or how people have fought back against these sins.”
Knox said that she only had about a week to prepare her written testimony, but she had support from the groups who recommended her, Durbin’s office and the UI’s Office of Federal Relations.
Once done with that, she had to make sure her spoken testimony would be exactly five minutes long, which was also a bit of a challenge.
She said that something people might not realize about the Senate’s offices is that they’re just that — regular office buildings.
“You can go visit your senator. You may not be able to see them, but they have an administrative assistant in their office, and you can tell them what your concerns are,” Knox said. “I think we take that for granted in the United States.”
The hearing itself was also open to the public and was likewise a little bit less intimidating than it sounds.
Knox described it as “organized chaos” with all the senators, their staff and journalists moving around.
She traces her interest in banned books to observing Banned Book Week with her mother, who was a librarian, and wondering why people would do that.
Knox’s favorite books that have turned up on banned book lists include “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” by Judy Blume, the “Captain Underpants” series by Dav Pilkey and memoirs like “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe and “All Boys Aren’t Blue” by George M. Johnson.
“It’s our right to read. It’s one of our First Amendment rights to be able to pick what we want to read,” Knox said. “People should pay attention, because if you don’t pay attention, that’s how you lose your rights.”