Stronger Freedom to Read Act introduced in New Jersey

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Pennsylvania is but one of many states in which libraries have come under siege by extremist right-wing activists. Neighboring New Jersey is also in the midst of its own culture war. In response, NJ lawmakers recently introduced a revised Freedom to Read Act in that state’s legislature.

S2421, co-sponsored by State Sens. Andrew Zwicker (D-Middlesex) and Maria Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), is an attempt to protect New Jersey’s libraries from the expanding threat of book bans, as well as librarians, who are facing increasing threats of harassment and actual violence. As is standard procedure, the bill was referred to the Senate Education Committee on Jan. 29 for debate.

Speaking to a group of library supporters who had gathered in anticipation of the North Hunterdon-Voorhees school board meeting, Senator Zwicker said, “It’s unbelievable that this is 2024 and we are again talking about this. This [bill] is going to be the gold standard for the whole country.”

At presstime, calls for comment to the offices of Sen. Zwicker and Sen. Ruiz have not been returned.

This is not the first time a bill to protect libraries has been introduced in New Jersey. A weaker version of this bill had been introduced in last year’s legislative session, but ended up dying in committee. By all accounts, S2421 is much stronger than last year’s failed version.

The current bill specifically states, “…[I]t is necessary and proper for the Legislature to protect the freedom of New Jersey’s residents to read, for school libraries and public libraries to acquire and maintain materials without external limitations, to recognize that school library media specialists and librarians are trained to curate and develop collections, and to protect school library media specialists and librarians from unnecessary and unwarranted harassment and defamation for performance of their duties.”

The bill would further require school boards to establish and codify how materials are challenged in the library. Challenges to material would be limited to those who have a vested interest in the institution, such as educators, students, or parents in the district. Challenged materials would remain on shelves throughout the process, and the makeup of the team reviewing materials would include educators, administrators and librarians.

The bill specifically singles out protections for librarians and library workers. In addition to efforts to ban books and materials with diversity, equity and inclusion and LGBTQ+ content, conservative activists have engaged in campaigns of harassment and defamation against librarians, characterizing them at board meetings and on social media as “groomers” and “pornographers.”

The New Jersey Library Association, in conjunction with the New Jersey Association of School Librarians and the New Jersey Education Association, released a public statement in response to the increasingly aggressive attacks against libraries and librarians in the state.

The statement reads, “[We] have watched, with concern, the growing number of coordinated attempts of censorship and suppression in schools and libraries in New Jersey and across the country. Many of these attacks are targeting materials and programs that address race, racism, sexuality, and gender identity and expression. New Jersey school, public, and academic library workers are being defamed, harassed and threatened in public school board meetings, public library board of trustees meetings, on social media and on public media. Their professionalism, honor, work ethics and performance are being questioned, judged and vilified.”

The bill not only provides legal protections for library workers, it spells out a procedure for legal redress and damages for those who are targeted.

The American Library Association is another organization that has been targeted by right-wing extremists for its efforts to help libraries combat book bans. It has been a major player in the lobbying effort to convince state legislatures to pass bills like New Jersey’s Freedom to Read Act.

In a written statement shared with PGN, Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, said, “ALA deeply appreciates elected officials who recognize the role of libraries as institutions that foster literacy and a love for learning. State legislatures have an increasing interest in legislation that bans book bans, and ALA sees that as a call to everyone to stand up against censorship and call it what it is, a threat to our children’s education, to our civil liberties and individual freedoms and to our democracy.”

New Jersey joins the ranks of several states where library protection legislation has been introduced and is currently winding its way through the legislative process. These states include Massachusetts, Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Illinois and Washington state.