After an exuberant opening general session on Friday evening, June 23, featuring legendary bestselling author Judy Blume, librarians at the American Library Association's 2023 Annual Conference packed conference rooms at Chicago's McCormick Place for a robust education program that included a number of sessions designed to help librarians navigate an unprecedented wave of book bans and threats to the freedom to read.
On Saturday, June 24, Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom and Theresa Chmara, an attorney who is general counsel to the Freedom to Read Foundation talked about the legal and legislative landscape facing librarians. Titled “Books Under Fire: Law and the Right to Read,” Caldwell-Stone told librarians that 151 bills designed to restrict or censor access to information and library services have been introduced in state legislatures across the country in 2023, including 28 in Texas alone; much of this legislation is based on the premise that certain books and other materials are obscene or even child pornography.
Chmara then walked the audience through what the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution declares, noting that the First Amendment applies to adults and to minors, and, as the Supreme Court held in the landmark 1969 case Tinker v. Des Moines, neither students nor their teachers “shed their rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gates.” She also explained that determining “obscenity" involves a legal test in a court of law and that “not just anyone can make the determination that something is obscene.”
Chmara then took a deeper dive into four recent court cases and the issues involved, including a closely-watched case in Llano County,Texas, Little v Llano County, in which a group of library patrons are suing county administrators over the removal of books from their local library. In March, a federal judge found the books were illegally removed by county officials based on viewpoint discrimination and issued a preliminary injunction ordering that 17 books be returned to library shelves while the case is decided. The order is currently under appeal, with library and publisher groups filing amicus briefs in the case.
Chmara also spoke about a high profile case in Virginia, in which a local conservative politician sued to have the books Gender Queer and A Court of Mist and Fury, removed from libraries and bookstores under an obscure state obscenity law. But last August, a state judge swiftly dismissed the case, and, in a resounding victory for freedom to read advocates, struck down the Virginia law upon which the cases were brought, finding it unconstitutional.
Also on Chmara's docket: a recently filed case filed by a coalition of 18 plaintiffs (including librarians, publishers, authors, and advocates) challenging Arkansas's new "harmful to minors" law, and a case filed by advocates and the ACLU on behalf of parents of Wentzville school district students in Missouri over a new law in that state. “These are important cases and we’ll be watching them,” Chmara said, noting also that such litigation serves as a way to force public officials to recognize that there are constitutional rights at stake when it comes to book challenges, and perhaps more importantly, remind lawmakers that passing laws that infringe those rights "will cost them.”
Concluding her presentation, Chmara said that “the momentum is changing,” that more people now "realize what is going on, and challenges are being made across the country to stop this.”
Engaging With the Community
Another Saturday afternoon session featured a group of diverse authors on a panel entitled, "How to Fight Book Bans: Authors on Speaking Up and Fighting Back." The group, moderated by We Need Diverse Books co-founder and CEO Ellen Oh, included Samira Ahmed; Jerry Craft; Ashley Hope Perez; Kyle Lukoff; and Eliot Schrefer, who all testified to their own personal experiences with censorship and bigotry.
“School libraries are a place of discovery,” Perez declared, “So much of book banning is about rolling back progress. It’s so easy to pull back. I am begging you not to do that. Please keep buying the books that matter to young people.”
Ahmed urged political action, though she prefers the term "community engagement.” She urged the audience to get to know local elected officials, especially school board members, and to call or fax elected officials. “Don’t email,” she suggested, noting that emails are easier to ignore. She also suggested conducting postcard campaigns, recommending postcards created by WNDB, which features the command, “Let Me Read!” that are featured on the WNDB website resources for librarians confronting book bans.
“I want you to send postcards to your elected officials, even if they’re on your side,” Ahmed said, acknowledging that political action can be hard, but insisting that adults "need to find our courage" to defend our kids. "We’re just saying, don’t ban books and don’t be a fascist. This is the United States of America,” Ahmed said, urging librarians to "call on our allies to come out and deliver and not be afraid.”
On Sunday, June 24, Emily Amick, better known as "Emily in Your Phone," on social media offered a look at Moms for Liberty and other like-minded groups, which she characterized as a well-funded right-wing political movement bent on destroying schools and libraries.
These groups don’t want to just ban books, said Amick, a former counsel to U.S. Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer—they want to take over institutions and reshape our culture to align with their ideology. She explained how these groups have effectively harnessed social media to amplify their message and to project a false image of being a grassroots movement to boost the mainstreaming of their ideas. They use a “fear-driven narrative” to transform mothers “from bystanders into warriors.”
Amick told librarians that freedom to read advocates need to “find our message and our messengers and repeat things over and over again,” noting that while the issue may seem obvious to those who understand what's going on, it isn't to many outside the profession. She also cautioned librarians against repeating the arguments made by Moms for Liberty because “repeating their terminology" can serve to reinforce it. "What you negate, you evoke,” Amick explained, adding that it's time to go from "defense to offense."
Amick also urged the audience to “stop feeding the rage farming,” and not to reply to DMs or inflammatory comments. “Get comfortable with disagreements,” she said, “calling out hypocrisy just incites backlash.” Instead, she said, emphasize what individuals and organizations challenging books are “taking away from people in your community," without using short labels like "Nazi.” Library supporters should message how book challenges negatively impact libraries and also the children who need access to them and their collections. And sometimes mockery and humor can be most effective, she noted.
“A lot of research has shown that pointing out how ludicrous it is to want to ban a book about seahorses because they are gay is the most effective form of marketing," she pointed out. "We need to make clear to future supporters how they will be viewed by their community if they support these extremist ideologies.”
And she urged librarians to be prepared for a long, hard battle. “They have a lot of money,” Amick noted. “What we have is persistence and facts and community. We are on the side of freedom."
ALA 2023 will conclude on Wednesday morning, with a closing session featuring the poet Amanda Gorman and children’s book illustrator Christian Robinson.