In March 2022, I reported for MindSite News about an ominous trend: The mental health of librarians was being threatened because they were standing up to book censorship and encountering vicious abuse and harassment from vigilante parents’ groups and individuals. We later learned that some of the vigilantes belonged to the extremist group Moms for Liberty.
One of the librarians I reported on was Brooky Parks. She had organized library events for teens concerned about racism or struggling with their sexual identities – and then pushed back on attempts to cancel those events. Her abrupt dismissal from a job that she loved left her distraught and anxious, especially because she was supporting two teenagers on her own.
But this fall, after a protracted legal battle, I heard from Parks’ attorneys. She was vindicated in her fight against censorship, winning a $250,000 settlement against her former employer, the High Plains Public Library District.
The district, it turned out, was ordered to develop new policies that are “more inclusive of a variety of community perspectives” when it selects library events and activities.
The lawsuit felt like “the only choice that I had to stand up for what I believe in” and to hold the library district accountable, Parks told MindSite News. “To finally have been able to effect the change that we were able to bring about feels really good.”
The High Plains Public Library District did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
The pressure on librarians to take part in censorship or lose their jobs has surged, according to the American Library Association (ALA). In 2019, the organization’s Office of Intellectual Freedom had no reports of librarians being fired or resigning under pressure. So far this year, it has received 31 such reports from libraries across the country.
The attacks on librarians are part of a larger trend, also reported in MindSite News, of school board takeovers by far-right groups lobbying against mental health curricula and social-emotional learning (SEL).
The settlement agreement may be first of its kind in the country and will serve as a warning to other locales, said Parks’ attorney, Azra Taslimi. “Not only will districts that engage in this behavior be liable for monetary damages, but this movement of suppressing speech and First Amendment rights [will] backfire,” she told MindSite News.
Librarians like Parks who are fighting censorship have faced an onslaught of threats and intimidation, from being doxxed on social media to receiving death threats and bomb threats in the libraries where they work, according to Deborah Caldwell-Stone, the ALA’s director of the Office of Intellectual Freedom. Books bans are also on the rise: Among the most banned books in the country, according to the ALA, are The Bluest Eye by the late novelist Toni Morrison, Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian and This Book is Gay by Juno Dawson.
Other banned books in 2023 include 1984 and Animal Farm by George Orwell, Black Boy by Richard Wright, Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya, The Call of the Wild by Jack London, For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway, and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. Also among the banned books: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, a science fiction classic describing a dystopian society in which all books are rounded up and burned.
“We’re seeing a well-organized, well-financed campaign to target libraries and librarians, and to use really despicable and sometimes unspeakable tactics to force their views on a community, on the library, to tell us what to read and think about,” said Caldwell-Stone of the ALA. “And they are not shy about going after public servants to achieve their goals.”
Terri Lesley of Wyoming, another client of Taslimi’s law firm, was also targeted with verbal attacks and violent threats. She was eventually fired as executive director at the Campbell County Public Library System, a position she had held for 11 of the 27 years she worked there, according to a discrimination complaint filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Because she refused to remove or relocate books on gay themes or sex education for kids and teens from the library, she was accused of “engaging in felonious criminal sexual conduct towards children, of peddling ‘pornography,’ of perverting and destroying children’s lives, and of bringing ruination to the community,” according to the complaint.
In July, the district voted to terminate her, and the complaint states that library board members and some county commissioners either participated in Lesley’s harassment or failed to defend her. The complaint also alleges that county residents “threatened the physical safety of Ms. Lesley and her librarian colleagues and sought to have Ms. Lesley arrested and imprisoned.”
Lesley talked about the impact on her mental health with MindSite News.
“It was brutal. It was tough to sleep. And it’s just such a shocking thing,” she said. “You’ve been a law-abiding citizen your entire life, you’ve been a pretty good person, you’re out there to try and help people and all of a sudden you have a group of people who wants you thrown in jail. And they have billboards that say that you’re a pedophile, and ‘Fire Terri.’”
As she waits for her lawsuit to proceed, Lesley takes comfort from the fact that supporters have organized to combat the climate of intolerance, coming to library board meetings and speaking out. “Having that support out there has been huge for me,” she said. “And it’s huge for the staff.”
Other communities are also organizing to counter the tide of intolerance:
- In Llano County, Texas, community members filed a lawsuit against the town’s library board and commissioners for removing books that they deemed inappropriate, according to ALA’s Caldwell-Stone. A federal district court issued a preliminary injunction finding that the First Amendment rights of the litigants had been violated, and ordered books back on the shelves until the merits of the case are decided.
- Librarian Amanda Jones of Livingston Parish, Louisiana, is appealing a decision by a lower court to dismiss her defamation case. Jones was voted the National School Librarian of the Year by School Library Journal in 2021. She spoke up for more inclusivity in book selections – including books on sexuality, reproduction and LGBTQ themes – at a school board meeting. After the meeting, her appeal alleges, the defendants posted online that she “promotes pornography and erotica content to kids.”
- In Arkansas, a group of library users, library districts and libraries filed a lawsuit against the rollout of a so-called anti-obscenity law, Act 372, passed this year by Arkansas lawmakers and signed into law in March by Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders. The law would make it easy to remove books “according to an inappropriate standard rather than any standard tied to the law regarding protected speech,” said Caldwell-Stone. The law would also make it illegal to allow minors in bookstores or libraries containing books deemed harmful to minors. The federal district court found both the standard and the prohibition against minors unconstitutional.
Back in Colorado, Brooky Parks was recently honored with the 2023 Julie Boucher Memorial Award for Intellectual Freedom and is again working as a librarian – this time with the University of Denver. To other librarians who may be fighting battles similar to hers, she wants them to know that “the majority of people do not believe in books bans. And if we all speak up together, we could just end this.”
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