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How Alabama Library Supporters Took Action and You Can, Too: Book Censorship News, June 7, 2024

Kelly is a former librarian and a long-time blogger at STACKED. She’s the editor/author of (DON’T) CALL ME CRAZY: 33 VOICES START THE CONVERSATION ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH and the editor/author of HERE WE ARE: FEMINISM FOR THE REAL WORLD. Her next book, BODY TALK, will publish in Fall 2020. Follow her on Instagram @heykellyjensen.

The Autauga-Prattville Public Library, located in the northwest suburbs of Montgomery, Alabama, has been at the center of book challenges and library upheaval for nearly a year. It began with a campaign against so-called “inappropriate” books by the Moms For Liberty-adjacent group Clean Up Prattville. Then came the board — five members of which left in the prior year, opening up the seats to deeply partisan appointments — and its support of making changes that aligned with both the Clean Up group and ongoing pressure from state governor Kay Ivey, who has eagerly been chipping away at support for public libraries for years.

Among the board’s changes was a slate of new policies. Those changes, announced in February 2024, included banning the purchase of books for anyone under 18 that included “sexual content” or queer themes, affixing red labels to all books by or about LGBTQ+ books library-wide, and the board’s total control over decisions related to whether books stay or are removed from the library when a complaint is lodged (the board’s new policies also removed the requirement a patron read the entirety of a book before lodging a formal complaint).

Then, in March, Prattville’s library director, Andrew Foster, and several other employees were fired by the board. They had refused to remove over 100 LGBTQ+ titles from the young adult section at the demand of the board, one of the factors believed to be related to their firing. In response to the firings, library staff members walked out and locked up the library in solidarity with their director.

Prattville might be one public library in one state that many believe is hopeless because it’s a “red state.” But here we are four years into the book banning surge, and it remains important to emphasize that where censorship happens does not matter. It is happening everywhere, even in the so-called “good” “blue states.” Every person, every child, deserves access to materials in their public institutions like libraries and schools.

The reason this has been more prevalent in some states than others isn’t because people deserve it or voted for it. It’s because those people have been systematically disenfranchised or gerrymandered in such a way that their right to democracy doesn’t exist in the same way it does in other states. And, frankly, it’s pretty hateful to believe the child of the harshest, most extreme right-wing folks doesn’t deserve access to a library or school because of the rhetoric that has brainwashed their parents. This fight is on behalf of everyone, not just those deemed more morally superior for having the luck or choice of living in one locality rather than another.

The work is long. It is tiring. It is at a high personal cost. We’ve got enough awareness campaigns and resources. We know that in the last four years, how to fight book bans and challenges hasn’t changed — you need to vote, you need to show up to board meetings (and/or be involved on the board if possible), you have to get into your elected officials’ ears, you need to stay on top of the news, and then, choose one more thing if time and energy permit. One of those choice things might be getting involved with groups who can collaborate on a bigger mission than can be accomplished by an individual alone.

That way forward is most likely through legal and legislative actions.

Weeks after the unceremonious firing of Foster and other employees from the Prattville library, the library was hit with two lawsuits. The first came from Foster himself against the board. It was settled out of court in late May. The second lawsuit was filed in early May by Read Freely Alabama, who has been on the ground fighting against the censorship and destruction of Prattville Public Library. Read Freely Alabama is joined in the lawsuit by the Alabama Library Association — the state’s largest professional organization for library workers — and local community members who use the Prattville library.

The second lawsuit, filed in the US District Court for the Middle District of Alabama, alleges that the policies created by the board in February violate First and Fourteenth Amendment rights. Not only are the policies overly broad, they discriminate on the basis of content. This week, I talked with several plaintiffs bringing the case against the Autauga-Prattville Public Library Board of Trustees about what they hope comes of the work they’re doing and, equally important, how the work they’re doing can inform, inspire, and catalyze similar work across the country.

Can you talk a little bit about the ways Read Freely Alabama and the Alabama Library Association have been working together to push back against extremism at Prattville?

Read Freely Alabama grew out of the fight where a small, extremist minority started filing book challenges over a children’s board book about inclusive pronouns in spring of 2023 in the town of Prattville, Alabama. This tactic is similar to the battles in Texas and Florida, and we knew instantly that this wasn’t just about Prattville’s public libraries. As parents under the Moms For Liberty-adjacent group Clean Up Alabama (first called Clean Up Prattville) lined up to falsely accuse librarians and public libraries of sexualizing children and calling for the banning of books, Prattville parent Angie Hayden stood up at the microphone and said: “I just want you to know there is more than one type of concerned parent in Prattville.” Thus, Read Freely Alabama began. RFA started organizing under a private Facebook group started by Sam Olson.

As Alabama public libraries began facing similar challenges, groups started forming to push back against the misinformation spread by Clean Up Alabama and Moms For Liberty, some as alliances and some as RFA chapters. A librarian living in Prattville, Jessica Hayes, joined the fight by getting librarians involved with RFA and ensuring a coalition effort between the existing professional networks and RFA. Now, we have at least seven chapters and a senior leadership team overseeing our statewide fight. We were also concerned because we understand that this fight is coming in the context of broader attacks targeting LGBTQ+ and racial minorities in Alabama and around the country. Many of us also knew that book bans were unpopular with people on both sides of the aisle. Our mission from the first was to represent the apolitical nature of the library and empower parents and guardians to fight for their right to choose reading material for their families, regardless of political affiliation. Our messaging has highlighted the hypocrisy of so-called far-right parental rights movements while communicating the true constitutional and civil rights of every Alabamian to find representation on library shelves in all sections of the library.

What led you to choose to file a lawsuit? What work went on behind the scenes to make that happen?

Because of the deep pride we hold for this state and our love for our libraries, we felt compelled to speak out against the Autauga-Prattville Public Library Board’s new harmful policies that were resulting in banning books from our libraries. This was also true for the Alabama Library Association, which also decided to become involved as a result of our professional ethics and desire to stand up to the bullies who insulted and demeaned our profession for the past year. These new policies unlawfully censor and discriminate against certain types of materials and speech. They violate our First Amendment rights to make sure the government isn’t privileging some perspectives over others. Politicians shouldn’t be dictating what our kids get to read, parents should be. And the Alabamians we were each talking to about this situation agreed with us. These unlawful censorship policies have no home in our state. So, we decided it was time to go on offense. This lawsuit empowered us to proactively fight for democracy. Though we come from across the religious and political spectrum, we came together to take action because we share an intense pride in our home state — and its deep history in the fight for civil rights — and we cannot sit on the sidelines at this critical moment.

How did you frame the issue when you filed the lawsuit? What angle did you take and where/how do you see this playing out in Prattville? What about in other current book banning situations?

Put simply, what we are arguing is that parents, not politicians, should have the power to make the decisions on what our children read. In our lawsuit, we acknowledge that everyone agrees the library shouldn’t offer “obscene” materials, just like everyone agrees it makes sense to have a separate section for adults (which our library already has). But the Board’s new criteria for library books go way beyond that. They are overly broad and will gut the library’s collection of books that grownups and young adults have a constitutional right to read. The way these rules are written, To Kill a Mockingbird could be off-limits to our kids even with our permission. The classic works we grew up reading — Anne of Green Gables, Little Women — all fall under the Board’s ban. Not only do the rules hold 7-year-olds and 17-year-olds to the same standards, but they could also mean that an adult who wishes to check out a Young Adult book about an LGBTQ+ character for their own reading will no longer be able to.

What censorship stories outside of Prattville have you been following? Have you worked with or networked with other anti-book ban groups beyond Alabama?

Sadly, book bans and censoring children’s access to information are not just happening here in Prattville. The recent nationwide uptick in book banning, curriculum censorship, and intentionally reduced representation in schools and the public sphere is extremely concerning. We all firmly believe that libraries — and the resources they offer — should be inclusive of and accessible to all students, families, and communities. Yet extremists are pushing a censorship agenda. Censorship not only threatens who we see and hear from — it threatens the very fabric of our participatory democracy. But our hope with this legal action is that by stopping these attacks on access to information here, we can show these Orwellian efforts to be unconstitutional on a statewide level, too.

What worries you about book banning and extremism toward libraries and schools right now?

We worry about what it says to young people whose stories are represented in books like Heather Has Two Mommies, which has been heavily targeted in Alabama over the last year. It’s ironic that the story we are told is that these extremist groups are trying to protect children. It seems to us that they’re doing the exact opposite to marginalized children and their families. Anyone who is aware of the history of book banning sees the danger, but what many people do not realize is that the first books to be burned in Hitler’s Germany were books on transgender and gay people. One of our founding members, Sam Olson, has said from the beginning that these books are a proxy for human beings. It’s not just about books on a shelf; it’s about who is allowed to be seen as a valid human being worthy of representation. It’s about whether or not those human beings deserve space on those shelves. Removing or restricting access to these materials teaches our children that there is only one acceptable way to be. Only one acceptable kind of person. People aren’t a monolith.

Our children will grow up feeling ashamed of their differences. And what’s even more damaging, is without books talking about different kinds of people, adults and children alike will feel empowered to target people who don’t look, act, or think like them. These extremists are going after our most vulnerable, rural communities. Alabama’s rural communities are often left behind in state funding and resources, while unfairly maligned as ignorant and backward in popular media. However, residents in our Alabama rural communities have become the fiercest advocates for civil liberties and First Amendment rights.

What gives you hope?

We talk all the time about how encouraged we are to see so many Alabamians standing up against these waves of censorship. What gives us hope is knowing that the extremists truly are just a very loud minority and that the vast majority of people, even here in such a traditionally red state, see the danger inherent in these pushes for censorship and erasure and are pushing back. It’s been interesting to see what a uniting issue this has turned out to be; in a time when everyone seems so polarized, the freedom to access information and the right of all kinds of people to be represented in public spaces like libraries has largely proven to be something that brings people from all political and religious beliefs together. The number of people standing behind us is proof of that.

Jessica Hayes adds that for the librarians representing the Alabama Library Association, they see hope in the fact they are even participating in this lawsuit. Too long have Alabama librarians, including the ALLA, been too quiet, timid, and subservient; to quote ALLA President Craig Scott, this time we are bringing out the “haymaker” and fighting back. As a parent, seeing the amount of support there is behind our movement gives me so much hope. Our children shouldn’t have to grow up in a world where they feel shame for what they or their families look like. Seeing the majority of people supporting our freedom to access material in the public library shows me that even though we may not align on all things, we do all have one thing in common. We all believe everyone deserves representation in our public library.

Book Censorships News: June 7, 2024

  • Princeton, Texas, canceled its entire Pride event because the event was distributing banned books.
  • It is a board member behind the demand to have 30 books removed from Fort Bend Independent School District (TX).
  • Brownsville Independent School District (TX) just pulled 5 books for review, following complaints from a local pastor about dozens of inappropriate titles. Don’t worry, though. There are 600 other books the district is reviewing, too.
  • In Mat-Su Schools (AK), seven books have officially been banned. Four more will be banned or retained in a meeting later this month as the district reviews several dozen that were challenged.
  • New Hanover County Schools (NC) now have board members complaining about books used in the very popular — and long-running without issue because we know this is all made up — Battle of the Books event. “‘Some of the choices, I question and challenge of why we’re putting this in front of our 9-year-olds,’ Barnhart said during the meeting. ‘One is about a father who’s incarcerated as a murderer. And she finds a letter written by him.’” Literally, the board member cannot imagine a child having an incarcerated parent. To be so effing privileged.
  • It is very likely the legislation in South Carolina over “age appropriate books” will go into effect. The law is vague and will put significant power over book selection to the state itself rather than folks who have degrees, experience, and knowledge in it.
  • “Board member Susan Horn requested Knox County Schools [TN] consider changes to policies about library materials that would specifically exclude materials if they depict sexual activity. The changes follow controversies related to LGBTQ+ materials on high school shelves […] The councils and committees emerged after emails and social media posts that said high school students could access materials with sexual content — specifically naming Fun Home and Gender Queer.” So, moral panic over a social media post and the words fed to you by a hate group. This is embarrassing for institutions claiming to be schools.
  • New guidelines and training are being provided to school librarians and educators in Florida over what their book ban laws say. The state legislature did this to themselves and lied to citizens and employees about it.
  • Meanwhile — and this may have been shared in a roundup last month — Hernando County Schools (FL) banned 19 books which Moms For Liberty called a win. Moms For Liberty called it a “win.”
  • The St. Joseph School District (MO) has its official first book challenge. It is to the classic The Bluest Eye because none of these people are creative nor do their own work.
  • Then, this week, because the floodgates officially opened, the St. Joseph School District got 10 more book challenges. It’s all the usual suspects: Looking for Alaska by John Green, All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson, If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo, Crank and Tricks by Ellen Hopkins, Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher, And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson, The ABCs of LGBTQ+ by Ash Hardell, and This Book is Anti-Racist by Tiffany Jewell.
  • This story is paywalled, naturally, but it’s about how book banners are mad that new book banning rules in Huntsville public libraries (AL) do not go far enough to remove books that they don’t like.
  • “Images of naked men and women and drawings of sexual intercourse are included in books in both the adolescent and teen sections at the Alpena County Library [MI], a News review of the books confirmed this week. Now, the Alpena County Board of Commissioners, which appoints library board members, is getting involved to try to get the books relocated or removed from the library.” First, this is fascism — the local government is stepping in to take over the public library. Second, they are age-appropriate puberty books and the same books that the Moms For Book Banning and Friends target because no one is creative or intelligent here. Again, public library here!
  • Four books were challenged in the Corpus Christi public library (TX) and three are back on shelves. The fourth was retained as well, but the challenger is appealing the decision. The books are Queer: A Graphic History, What if? Answers to Questions About What It Means to be Gay and Lesbian, Auntie Uncle: Drag Queen Hero, and Doing it Right: Making Smart, Safe and Satisfying Choices about Sex — that’s the one the challenger is appealing the decision for. Update here is the repealed title will stay as is on shelves.
  • The made-up panic over books means kids in Virginia Beach, Virginia, schools aren’t able to access as much from the public libraries that partner with the schools anymore.
  • In good, but ridiculous, news, the Campbell County Public Library (WY) has moved Be Amazing back to the children’s section of the library, where it belonged. It was moved to the adult section after complaints earlier.
  • The Frederick County School Board (VA) board president who challenged several books in the district — yes, this is how he’s spending his time on the board — has had his first demand for removal denied. That’s good news. The book was Ellen Hopkins’s Crank and he included a made-up rating on the book.
  • Invisible Monsters will be banned from Pinellas County Schools (FL).
  • In the ongoing saga of the St. Charles Public Library (MO), the city council has passed a resolution against closure of three of the library’s branches. Recall that announcement happened last month by surprise because the budget has supposedly been decimated by digital collections. The same library banned an adult book in the adult collection last fall. The board here is the problem, not the library or the budget.
  • This story is paywalled, which is natural given it’s a really not great one. “The Baldwin County Commission voted Tuesday morning to disband the Baldwin County Library Cooperative and take over its operations almost two weeks after the cooperative fired its staff out of fear the county wanted to do away with it.” Those served by this cooperative are going to be harmed tremendously.
  • A Wichita, Kansas, pastor is encouraging his followers to participate in “Hide the Pride” and borrow LGBTQ+ books from their libraries with the intent never to return them.
  • An educator in Bourbonnais, Illinois, was fired from her job for hosting a book club with 5 eighth graders that used the book Looking For Alaska. This story is ridiculous. Yes, it includes parents calling the book pornography.
  • “Bob Edewaard spoke for Marull, who he said was away on vacation; he said the book ‘promoted Marxist revolutions cloaked in demonic demagoguery, with references to child abuse and sexual assault’” Just because you use big words doesn’t mean you’re able to block the rights of anyone to read a book, sir. Anyway, that’s a real gem of a quote about Pet by Akwaeke Emezi. Pet and Freedom Writers Diary will remain on shelves in Alachua County Schools (FL).
  • The Southern Poverty Law Center has released its 2023 report on hate and extremism. Check it out to see if one of your local-level book banners group has made the list in your state — in Illinois, Awake Illinois was finally added, alongside several Moms For Liberty chapters. Will this change their behavior? Nope. But it’s a tool that we use to remind the media who cites them uncritically that they’ve been labeled as a hate group.
  • That this is paywalled is a damn shame and disservice because this is about our democracy. The Des Moines Register found that despite the injunction on Senate File 496, which would ban all books with “sex acts” in state schools, hundreds of books state-wide have been removed from shelves despite the law not being in effect.
  • Finally, let’s end in Iowa with something that has been threaded through these book censorship news roundups since they began in 2021. This might be the first public school in Iowa to shut down because the state forced a voucher program through rather than robustly fund its public schools. A community might lose a school so some white supremacist’s kid can go to private school on their money. This is real, and it’s going to continue to happen. It’s the ultimate goal of all these book bans and the manufactured moral panic over queer kids and kids of color — the decimation of public goods.

  • Chilling Editorial Cartoons About Book Banning: Book Censorship News, May 31, 2024

  • Here’s Where Library Workers are Prohibited From Their Own Professional Organization: Book Censorship News, May 24, 2024

  • What Do Book Challenge Forms Look Like?: Book Censorship News, May 17, 2024

  • How To Prepare for Pride Month in Libraries 2024: Book Censorship News, May 10, 2024

  • Are Librarians Criminals? These Bills Would Make Them So: Book Censorship News, May 3, 2024

  • How to Fight Book Bans in 2024: Book Censorship News, April 26, 2024

  • Google Is Destroying Your Access to News: Book Censorship News, April 19, 2024

  • What Young People Can Do About Book Bans: Book Censorship News, April 12, 2024

  • Sexual Assault Awareness Month & Book Banning: Book Censorship News, April 5, 2024

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