In the wake of midterm elections in which many of their candidates performed well below expectations, conservative culture warriors continue to ramp up their attacks on the LGBT community. One target conservatives have chosen to focus on this year have been libraries, both public and school, that stock LGBT-themed books they consider pornographic or that can be accused of being tools to “groom” kids. They are putting pressure on libraries and schools to either restrict such material, or more usually, to ban these books outright.
They have, in effect, gone to war against libraries and schools in their quest to control them.
According to the American Library Association from January through August 2022 there were 681 attempts to either ban allegedly objectionable books outright or to severely restrict access to them, as well as to limit library resources or cancel library programs featuring LGBT and other diversity-oriented content in K-12 schools, universities and public libraries nationwide.
According to Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, “We’re seeing the result of a lot of disinformation and misinformation about libraries, how librarians work and the content of the books. For example, I absolutely reject the idea that books that deal with puberty, human reproduction, sexual health, and developing good relationships have anything anything to do with what’s called grooming. That’s a falsehood by a number of advocacy groups that really have an anti-pornography, anti-LGBT agenda.”
Conservative focus has been particularly fierce against schools. As revealed in a recent report by PEN America, a national library advocacy organization, in the time frame July 2021 to July 2022, 2,532 books were successfully banned in schools. This involved 138 different school districts containing 5,049 schools. The total number of students affected came to over four million.
The power of the pursestrings
Conservative activists have shown a willingness to defund or close public libraries that resist calls to ban books or restrict diversity-themed programs. And they are having a distressing level of success, especially in smaller communities.
One example that’s been in the news lately is the Patmos Library in Jonestown Township, Michigan (pop. 10,000). Conservatives pressured the library to remove about 90 gay-themed books from their collection of over 67,000 volumes. When the library refused, conservatives made the issue part of a tax referendum, what’s called a property tax millage, out of which the library receives the bulk of its funding. The library lost, and was defunded.
Supporters rapidly mobilized a GoFundMe campaign for the library, spearheaded by romance novelist Nora Roberts, who donated $50,000. The effort raised over $250,000. The funds enabled the library to force a second referendum earlier this past November, which they also lost, by a 55.8-44.2 margin. The library trustees subsequently announced that, unless circumstances change, they will have to close their doors permanently in September 2024.
Similar scenarios are playing out with the Craighead County Jonesboro Library in Arkansas, which lost its own funding referendum by a 62-38 margin, as well as the Glen Carbon Library in southern Illinois. The municipal library of Victoria, Texas was threatened with eviction from its building later this year unless it accommodated the demands of their local conservative activists. While the mayor of Victoria promised there would be no eviction, he conceded that talks would have to commence on how to change the library’s policy on restricting objectionable material.
According to the ALA’s Caldwell-Stone, there are many more public libraries facing the threat of defunding or reduced funding that have flown under the national media radar. For instance, the Idaho state legislature reduced the budget of state libraries in response to complaints about allegedly inappropriate books. The Campbell County, Wyoming commissioners reduced the library budget as a response to the library board’s decision to retain challenged books in the young adult section. And the St. Mary’s, Kansas, Public Library was threatened with losing their lease because a lone parent objected to a single book, Alex Gino’s Melissa.
ALA President Lessa Pelayo-Losada told PGN that library funding has always been at the top of local budgetary hit lists since the founding of the public library system. “However,” she cautions, “attempts to defund libraries or ban books has increased dramatically, recently. In the last year we’ve seen the highest number of book challenges on record.”
And apparently some conservatives are not satisfied with just getting LGBT books pulled from stacks. Some school libraries are being told they need to submit lists of future acquisitions for approval, and possible veto, by “citizen committees.”
The most significant example of such pre-emptive censorship occurred in Collierville, Tennessee, where a school district removed 327 books from shelves in anticipation of a state law that ultimately did not pass. Administrators sort the books into tiers based on how much the books focus on LGBTQ+ characters or story lines; tier 3, for instance, 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 reaches tier 5, according to the sorting guidelines, it will be pulled.
Other pre-emptive bans were responses to actions at the state level or in neighboring districts. For example, bans in the Texas independent school districts of Katy, Clear Creek, and Cypress-Fairbanks were the result of administrators responding either to what was happening in other districts or to an 850-book list compiled and circulated to education officials by Texas state representative Matt Krause.
Another interesting battle has been unfolding in Bonners Ferry, Idaho. The public library of Boundary County recently faced a demonstration by a large group of armed conservatives who demanded that the library ban a list of over 400 books. Ironically, CNN learned that the library did not contain any of the books on the demonstrators’ list. But the Idaho conservatives were not assuaged: the library administrator has said that those books may be acquired in the future, if there are requests for them.
In fact, officials who resist conservative pressure in some cases run the risk of losing their jobs. This past November, three superintendents were purged from Florida public school districts by conservative school boards with ties to Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Take them to court
One tactic conservative activists are also using, in addition to strangling a library’s budget, is filing of civil lawsuits and criminal charges. Criminal charges have been pursued against school officials and librarians in a number of cases in the past year. From Texas to Florida to North Carolina to Rhode Island, sheriffs have received complaints of the distribution of pornography in schools.
PEN America found at least 15 documented cases of criminal charges being filed or complaints being filled out regarding distribution of obscenity or pornographic material in public and school libraries during the 2021-22 school year.
Generally, suits or charges of this sort brought against public libraries and their officials are dismissed by courts on First Amendment grounds. But school libraries are a whole different legal kettle of fish.
Public libraries serve a separate function than school libraries and are impacted by debates over book bans slightly differently. Public libraries serve as public forums, and courts have ruled that Americans have a First Amendment right to enter and use them. They’re meant to serve everyone in the community, unlike school libraries that are meant to serve students and implement policies for education. As such, different criteria apply.
The war comes to Pennsylvania
The situation looks equally dire in Pennsylvania which, according to the PEN America report, ranks third in the nation for attempted or successful bans (Texas is #1, Florida is #2) with 11 school districts targeted in the past year, with a total statewide of 459 titles banned in schools. The highest incidence of book banning in the state has been in Central York, with 441 titles banned. The overwhelming majority of those books have involved LGBT themes, with books featuring black characters or which deal with alleged critical race theory completing the list.
In fact, earlier this year the Pennsylvania state legislature jumped into the fray.
Two Republican state senators, Ryan Aument and Scott Martin, sponsored anti-gay bills targeting Pennsylvania schools and school libraries, which the Senate Education Committee passed on June 21. Aument’s bill (SB1277) allows parents to prevent their child from accessing books or materials with make any reference to homosexuality. Martin’s bill (SB1278) is even more insidious. Among other provisions, it essentially will require schools to out LGBT students to their families. Both bills have been likened by LGBT advocates to Ron DeSantis’ infamous “don’t say gay” bills in Florida.
Both bills were referred to the State House Education Committee, where they are unlikely to pass. Thanks to the midterm elections, the House (and subsequently, its committees) is no longer ruled by a Republican majority. Even in the improbable event that both bills made it out of the House Education Committee and passed both chambers of the state legislature, they would almost certainly be vetoed by incoming Democratic Governor Josh Shapiro.
Identifying the culture warriors
PEN America has identified at least 50 groups operating at the national, state or local level to campaign and mobilize around what they view as the dangers of LGBT and diversity-themed books in public libraries and in K-12 schools, and advocating for book restrictions and bans. Of these, eight have regional and local chapters that, between them, number at least 300 in total. Some of these operate predominantly through social media, but many are active and direct lobbyists for their cause.
Of the national groups, Moms for Liberty has spread most broadly, with over 200 local chapters identified on their website. Other national groups with branches include US Parents Involved in Education (50 chapters), No Left Turn in Education (25), MassResistance (16), Parents’ Rights in Education (12), Mary in the Library (9), County Citizens Defending Freedom USA (5) and Power2Parent (5).
Another 38 state, regional, or community groups advocating for book removals appear unaffiliated with the national groups or with one another.
While some of these groups have existed for years, the overwhelming majority are of recent origin. More than 70% of them (including chapters) have been formed since 2021.
The largest and most active of these groups operating in Pennsylvania is Moms for Liberty (formed in 2021), with chapters in 24 counties throughout the state, including Bucks, Lancaster, York and Erie. Interestingly, there is no chapter of Moms for Liberty currently active in Philadelphia county.
More aggressive, and potentially more dangerous, are the Proud Boys, a white nationalist militia known for their virulent racism, anti-Semitism and homophobia. The Proud Boys made national headlines for their connection to Donald Trump and their participation in the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol. In recent months, they have been prominent participants in protests against libraries hosting Drag Queen Story events, and schools with pro-LGBT policies.
In Orange County, North Carolina, the Proud Boys and other white nationalist groups have begun showing up at high school football games and school board meetings, protesting the district’s LGBT policies. Their intimidating language, apparel and physical gestures prompted school officials to hire extra security and pass a resolution opposing hostile and racist behavior.
The Red Oak Community School in Columbus, Ohio, canceled its Drag Queen Story event following threats from the Proud Boys to protest as well as a less than robust response to those threats from local police.
More dangerously, at many library protests, particularly in open-carry states like Ohio, Nevada, Oregon and Florida, the Proud Boys have been showing up armed. Police response in those instances is tepid because in states with open-carry laws, it’s legal for people to carry firearms in public.
But in times of war, the good guys tend to fight back. This was certainly evident at the Patmos Library in Michigan where supportive residents raised over a quarter million dollars via a GoFundMe campaign when the library was defunded. While the fundraiser did not solve the library’s long term funding crisis, and it will still have to close when the money runs out, it shows that even in conservative small-town communities there are residents who are passionate about their libraries and are willing to defend them.
Many libraries which host Drag Queen Story Hours, a popular program to promote literacy and diversity awareness among children, are confronted by crowds of conservative demonstrators who feel that drag queens are a threat to kids. At times the MAGA crowd is likewise confronted by counter-protestors, of equal or greater size, intent on supporting both the library and the drag queens who read to the children.
Such an incident took place recently in Cherry Hill. Prominent local drag impresario Brittany Lynn showed up at the local library to present a Drag Queen Storytime, only to be confronted by a mob of protestors. Library and DQST supporters rapidly formed a counter-protest that enabled Lynn to proceed with the program.
A possible game-changer in the fight against the rising red tide may be coming from the American Civil Liberties Union. This last October, the ACLU of Pennsylvania filed a complaint with the U.S. Dept. of Education. The complaint accuses the Central Bucks School District of violating Title IX and the 14th Amendment, creating a “hostile environment” for LGBT students.
The question remains: what was the genesis of the anti-gay policies that sparked the ACLU’s complaint? According to Andy Hoover, director of communications for the ACLU of PA, the school district acceded to pressure from conservative activist groups. “That’s my understanding,” Hoover told PGN. “Several candidates supported by these groups were elected to the school board in the last election.”
Central Bucks SD board member Karen Smith confirmed Hoover’s estimation. “In the last election, the candidates backed by Moms for Liberty won a majority of board seats, by a 6-3 margin.” With the help of a sympathetic superintendent, the new conservative school board members rapidly inaugurated the anti-gay policies that sparked the ACLU’s complaint.
Smith was vehement in her criticism of those anti-LGBT policies. “They are abhorrent. Without a doubt, they are causing harm to those kids. But now we can only wait and see what the Dept. of Education does.”
Another group is also attempting to get the federal government involved. In response to the expanding wave of disrupted school board meetings and threats and violence being aimed at educators and school officials, the National School Boards Association, which represents local school boards, sent a letter to President Biden that asks the federal government to look into whether the incidents violate federal statutes on domestic terrorism and hate crimes.
Less than a week later, Attorney General Merrick Garland directed the FBI and the U.S. Attorneys’ Offices to meet with local law enforcement agencies to discuss how to address harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence against school board members, teachers, and workers in our nation’s public schools.
From her national perspective, the ALA’s Pelayo-Lozada said of the book bans “I do, unfortunately, feel that this issue is not going away.”