Conservative efforts to control public libraries are making their way into GOP-backed laws


Conservatives continue to use so-called 'parental rights' bills as a weapon against LGTBQ people.

School and community libraries have become a major target for Republican state lawmakers in the past few months as conservative individuals and groups continue working to force libraries to remove books they say are inappropriate for kids.

The books targeted for removal, including "Gender Queer: A Memoir" by Maia Kobabe and "All Boys Aren't Blue: A Memoir-Manifesto" by George M. Johnson, often focus on the experiences of LGBTQ people and of Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color, sometimes abbreviated BIPOC. 

As school and community librarians have resisted calls to remove books, sometimes at great professional cost, state lawmakers have introduced bills that require library books to meet certain "community standards," allow parents to review which books their kids check out of a school library, and give local political leaders more control over the county library board. Arizona, Kentucky, and Oklahoma have enacted legislation that regulates libraries over the opposition of LGBTQ advocacy and librarian groups.

The bills fall in the category of legislation covering so-called "parental rights" in schools that conservatives have recently made use of as a focus of anti-LGBTQ efforts. This also includes bills introduced by Republican lawmakers to control what teachers are permitted to say about gender identity and sexual orientation in the classroom. According to the Movement Advancement Project, five states have enacted laws requiring that parents be given advanced notice when LGBTQ topics will be mentioned in schools and letting them opt their children out of such discussions, while six states censor classroom discussions about LGBTQ people. 

Arizona Republican Gov. Doug Ducey signed a bill into law April 29 that requires school districts to create plans for how parents can monitor the reading material their kids check out from school libraries, starting Jan. 1, 2023. After that date, librarians will also have to provide lists of books for public review at least 60 days after they are purchased for libraries. School libraries that don't have full-time librarians or that partner with county or municipal libraries wouldn't be subject to those requirements. Some schools in Arizona have a branch of a community library on their campus instead of a specific school library, Jeanne Woodbury, policy and communications director at Equality Arizona, told the American Independent Foundation. 

Woodbury said that the bill tells Arizonans that books are something to fear: "When a kid checks a book out from the library, they're reading and they're learning and that's great. That's not something to be afraid of. And this bill says library books are something to be afraid of, which is just pretty troubling in terms of what it shows the legislature thinks about education."

Woodbury added, "With publishing the full list of every book, it gives me the sense that this is setting up another stage of the process. So once the full list is up, we know that people have been going through libraries and combing through to find books about history or books about LGBT people that they find objectionable and then coming forward and saying we need to ban this book."

The Arizona Library Association opposes the bill. Erin MacFarlane, the group's legislative committee chair, stated in a post on the association's website in January that a review period of 60 days would "delay access to library material that is current and timely" and "put an undue burden on School Districts, limit access to reading material, and undermine the expertise of Teacher Librarians." 

A bill signed by Oklahoma Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt that will become effective in November says, "As school library media center resources are finite, the library media program shall be reflective of the community standards for the population the library media center serves when acquiring an age appropriate collection of print materials, nonprint materials, multimedia resources, equipment, and supplies adequate in quality and quantity to meet the needs of students in all areas of the school library media program." 

Although the bill doesn't mention specific content, advocates say it comes at a time when the climate in schools is becoming increasingly hostile to LGBTQ students. The state has already passed a number of anti-trans bills this year; Stitt signed a bill restricting transgender students' access to school bathrooms in May. 

Nicole McAfee, executive director of Freedom Oklahoma, said, "We know what the implicit implications are here and just how much more difficult it's going to be to fight this community by community, as people say that LGBTQ+ folks don't belong here, aren't included here, and shouldn't be represented in our libraries."

Although Kentucky's Democratic governor, Andy Beshear, vetoed a bill in April that advocates say will hurt public libraries, the Legislature overrode his veto later that month, and the law is scheduled to take effect on Jan. 1, 2023. It changes the state's rules for appointing members to library district boards, permitting county executives to reject the recommendations of those boards and of the Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives in filling vacancies. 

Jonathan Friedman, director of free expression and education at PEN America, said, "The potential for any form of censorship of books to turn from school libraries to public libraries means that you might be empowering people to censor books that are available to adults, and that affects the broader climate."

Friedman said that elected officials have cultivated a fear of books that they then use to rally support for the issue they have created.

"You can see that this is a multi-pronged effort ... even if it is not being explicitly coordinated in ways that we can track publicly," Friedman said. "I don't think it's all just a coincidence that in Virginia and Texas and Florida and in multiple other states, Republican legislatures are introducing similar bills and activists on the ground are making lists of books they want removed in schools. There are ways in which obviously all of this is moving in some degree of coordination or at least awareness of one another."

When asked what kinds of legal challenges can be brought against these laws, Vera Eidelman, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union's speech, privacy, and technology project, said it depends on what happens next. She said the ACLU will continue watching how the laws are applied.

"Basically, what the government can't do is remove books because of disagreement with the ideas contained inside of those books, and I think it would be necessary to show that that is a necessary result or actual result of these bills," Eidelman said.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.