(NEW YORK) – The literary and free speech organization PEN America is raising the alarm about Tennessee’s Collierville school district removing 327 books from library shelves that feature LGBTQ+ characters and themes, in spite of there being no policy or restriction requiring their removal.

In total, 327 previously approved books from notable authors including Rick Riordan and Audre Lorde – along with Alice Oseman’s Heartstopper series, the subject of a show on Netflix – were removed from district libraries. Administrators sorted them into tiers based on how much the books focus on LGBTQ+ characters or storylines. Tier 3, for instance, where Heartstopper was categorized, reflected that “The main character of the book is part of the LGBTQ community, and their sexual identity forms a key component of the plot. The book may contain suggestive language and/or implied sexual interactions.” If a book reached Tier 5, according to the sorting guidelines, “The books are being pulled.” According to reports, nearly a dozen books were also flagged as “Black Lives Matter” materials and removed from shelves.

Their removal was spurred not by any law, but rather by three proposed bills which did not pass, but which had sought to restrict the discussion of LGBTQ+ themes in schools. The removals were also reportedly motivated by the state’s 2021 educational gag order, which does not specifically target books relating to LGBTQ+ identities and only applies to curricula, not to school libraries. Some of the books may have since been returned to library shelves, but they were removed for at least two months; others, according to the district’s library catalog, may have been reassigned to a restricted access section; the whereabouts of others are unknown.

Jeremy C. Young, senior manager of free expression and education programs at PEN America, said in response to the news: “This is a heartbreaking case of administrative censorship and a perfect demonstration of the chilling effect that even proposed restrictions can impose on the freedom to read. No school should ever ban books based on the people and stories they depict. And no legislator should ever propose a bill that encourages a school to do so.”

About PEN America

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. Learn more at pen.org.