Censorship

BookLooks, Framed As “Objective” Book Rating Resource, a Moms For Liberty Joint

Moms For Liberty has been at the forefront of book challenges throughout the 2021-2022 school year. Their challenges begin in Brevard County, Florida, and their challenged titles become the targets of similar efforts to ban books across the country. Members of the group have called for the development of an “objective” rating system that would put an end to books that contain what they believe to be obscene and objectionable content being purchased for libraries. Across Moms For Liberty Facebook groups, as well similar “parents rights” groups across the country, a new resource has emerged heeding the call: BookLooks.

But what appears to be an objective measure of a book’s content, mirrored after movie ratings, is anything but. It is a tool developed by Moms For Liberty being used to push their agendas even further under the guise of protecting children.

Three tweets that talk about booklooks.org.

BookLooks, which launched in early 2022, says their mission is to “write and collect detailed and easy to understand book content reviews centered around objectionable content, including: profanity, nudity, and sexual content.” Their goal, “to make these reviews available to all parents so they can make informed decisions.”

Filed for an LLC in Florida on April 5, 2022, BookLooks is spearheaded by Moms For Liberty member Emily Maikisch, per filings. The site uses the same rating system shared on the Moms For Liberty Brevard County public Facebook page, published in late March.

Image of Facebook post from March 26.

Alongside the proposed rating systems, with examples of what would earn a book a more detrimental rating based on a passage or two within it, are definitions for what the raters look for. Most notable: the cherry-picked definition of obscene:

BookLooks definition of obscene.

Obscenity laws are much broader than what’s cited.

The U.S. Supreme Court established the test that judges and juries use to determine whether matter is obscene in three major cases: Miller v. California, 413 U.S. 15, 24-25 (1973); Smith v. United States, 431 U.S. 291, 300-02, 309 (1977); and Pope v. Illinois, 481 U.S. 497, 500-01 (1987).  The three-pronged Miller test is as follows:

1. Whether the average person, applying contemporary adult community standards, finds that the matter, taken as a whole, appeals to prurient interests (i.e., an erotic, lascivious, abnormal, unhealthy, degrading, shameful, or morbid interest in nudity, sex, or excretion);

2. Whether the average person, applying contemporary adult community standards, finds that the matter depicts or describes sexual conduct in a patently offensive way (i.e., ultimate sexual acts, normal or perverted, actual or simulated, masturbation, excretory functions, lewd exhibition of the genitals, or sado-masochistic sexual abuse); and

3. Whether a reasonable person finds that the matter, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.

Conveniently, the bold text above is precisely what the BookLooks definition–and the definition shared in the Moms For Liberty Brevard County group–choose to leave out.

The Brevard County Moms For Liberty group has recruited volunteers to contribute to their project. These volunteers, all aligned with the right-wing, Heritage-fund, Ron DeSantis affiliated Moms For Liberty, are using their pull to develop their book targets via BookLooks. Titles in BookLooks earning a rating of 4 or higher then go onto the list of titles which are formally challenged in Brevard.

Image of the Brevard County Moms For Liberty Facebook group post for volunteers.
Image of the Brevard County Moms For Liberty Facebook group post for volunteers.

Though “Emily Maikisch” is the name listed on the BookLooks registration, Emily is not the name she uses in her Moms For Liberty capacity. Instead, she goes by Penelope.

Penelope Maikisch Facebook page.
Penelope's comment on Moms For Liberty Brevard County

BookLooks has been the model for other book rating sites, including RatedBooks, which is aligned with the Utah-based book challenge group LaVerna in the Library. LaVerna in the Library–also known as Mary in the Library–has groups scattered throughout the country at the state level.

On BookLooks, concerned parents are invited not only to view the ratings as determined by volunteer readers but also encouraged to download and view the passages and pages deemed inappropriate. These passages are what are shared across these groups and used in filing challenges and creating dramatic readings at school board meetings.

Moms For Liberty’s Brevard chapter is its headquarters chapter and Brevard County School District is the first to see the organization’s challenges. Last week, the chapter submitted its fourth round of formal challenges to the school district. Each title on the list earned a rating of 4 or higher by BookLooks. Here’s how they’re doing it:

image of moms for liberty review of the nowhere girls.

Amy Reed’s award-winning YA book The Nowhere Girls was rated by BookLooks/Moms For Liberty as a 4. This triggered the book to be formally challenged at Brevard County School District, using the pages linked in the Facebook post (those are all included in the BookLooks listing for the book). The group blasted the schools in the district with the title on their page and encouraged others to look for and challenge the book in their districts based on their “objective” ratings.

While there is a direct link between Moms For Liberty and BookLooks, as well as a clear path in what the development is between a review and a formal challenge from the group, what is far less clear is where the books these volunteers are being sourced. Several books included in the still-tiny BookLooks database are titles that would never be purchased or included in a school library collection, such as The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Tantric Sex. That book is reviewed alongside Ruth Forman’s Curls (rated 0, with no objectionable content what so ever). It makes no sense for anyone with familiarity of how librarians read professional reviews and purchase materials to serve their school communities.

What does make sense, though, is how creating such a database under the guise of objectivity could evoke knee-jerk reactions from parents who may believe books about tantric sex reside alongside developmentally-appropriate titles like Reed’s in the library.

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