America’s culture warriors are going after librarians
Amanda Jones awoke one morning in late July to the buzz of a text message. The air was balmy already — Louisiana summer weather. Jones, a middle school librarian with a slick brown bob, bright yellow glasses and the warm demeanor of someone who has mastered the art of talking to teenagers, squinted at her phone.
“You need to look at this,” a friend messaged her, with a link to a Facebook post. When she clicked on it, she began shaking and gasping for breath.
“My heart was racing. My blood pressure was through the roof,” she said. “I lay in bed for two solid days and cried so much my eyes swelled shut.”
It had all started that week at a public library board meeting. The meeting’s official agenda included a vote on whether the library should restrict access to several books that dealt with themes related to gender, sexuality and LGBTQ issues. Jones, who is also the president of the Louisiana Association of School Librarians, decided to weigh in.
“No one on the right side of history has ever been on the side of censorship and hiding books,” she told the board. “Once you start relocating and banning one topic, it becomes a slippery slope.”
Other people spoke up and supported Jones’ opinion. The vote was taken off the table and the meeting adjourned. Jones was relieved. But then the Facebook messages started to appear.
It soon became clear that her speech at the meeting had activated the outrage machine powering the country’s nascent book-banning movement. In Jones, its cultural warriors had found a new target. A vicious trolling campaign ensued. People called her a pig, a pedophile and a groomer who needed to be “purged.” Some threatened to hurt her. Jones stopped leaving the house and started losing her hair.
What happened to Jones is not just a small-town, red-state story.
It’s a tale playing out in cities and states across the country, as a book-banning fever courses through the country’s body politic. Nationally, attempts to remove books from school and public libraries are shattering previous records. The effort is being driven by a loose collection of local and national conservative parents’ groups and politicians who have found a rewarding culture war battle in children’s books about gender, diversity and sexuality. The majority of these groups were created during the pandemic as part of a broader “parents’ rights” movement that formed in opposition to Covid-related masking and remote learning policies in schools and that has since widened its focus to include challenging library and classroom books about race and LGBTQ issues. Some of these groups compile or circulate lists of “inappropriate” books, which can be used to agitate for book bans at schools and public libraries, using language about pedophilia, porn and grooming to gin up support for their efforts.
As various factions lobby to get those books taken off the shelves, librarians like Jones have been swept up in what veterans of the field say is an unprecedented wave of hostility.
For Jones, it played out largely on Facebook. One post included her photo, identified her by name and asked: “Why is she fighting so hard to keep sexually erotic and pornographic materials in the kid’s section?” A different post, also featuring her name and photo, said she “advocated teaching anal sex to 11-year-olds.” Hundreds of people in her small town liked, commented and shared the posts. Some identified Jones’ workplace. Shortly thereafter, someone submitted a public records request to her school, seeking her employment records and work emails.
The digital harassment continued for months and began to ripple out to family and friends who were sent vitriolic messages from strangers. Her body started to react. Jones described “horrific” physical changes as the stress mounted. Her hair fell out. Her body broke out in hives. She stopped sleeping, suffered from panic attacks and lost dozens of pounds over the next two months. One day, a stranger sent her a death threat. “You can’t hide, we know where you live,” he warned. “You have a large target on your back. Click click.”
While efforts to ban books from public schools and libraries are not new, experts say the magnitude of the current campaign is unusual. 2022 will break records on book challenges, according to the data that the American Library Association began tracking more than two decades ago. As of September, there had been efforts to ban or restrict access to 1,651 different books in 2022, more than three times the number recorded in 2019.
Deborah Caldwell-Stone, the director of the association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom, characterized the book-banning movement as a politically motivated campaign to “disrupt education, stigmatize the voices of marginalized groups and engage in its own form of indoctrination.”
“What we have been observing is a growing effort to censor books that reflect the experiences of marginalized groups under this idea that, somehow, either that it’s morally unacceptable for any young person to know that there are gay people in the world, or that a narrative about U.S. history that illuminates systemic racism is somehow un-American and Marxist,” Caldwell-Stone told me.
The effort has been fueled by more than 50 groups that have coalesced around book restrictions and bans at every level, according to the nonprofit PEN America, which advocates for freedom of expression and has been tracking censorship attempts in schools. One of the most prominent players in this realm, the national nonprofit Moms for Liberty, has upwards of 200 chapters across the country and has backed hundreds of school board candidates nationwide, spending $50,000 on campaigns in Florida alone. The organization says it is “fighting for the survival of America by unifying, educating and empowering parents to defend their parental rights at all levels of government.” Its local chapters have driven book challenges in schools from Virginia to Florida.
On Facebook, Moms for Liberty’s main page features posts about cancel culture, school mask mandates and “the sexualization of children.” The New Yorker’s Paige Williams, who recently wrote a deep dive on the group, noted that “its instant absorption by the conservative mediasphere has led some critics to suspect it of being an Astroturf group—an operation secretly funded by moneyed interests.”
Lawmakers have also helped propel the broader campaign, with some introducing legislation intended to exercise more control over libraries’ selection policies. Others have demanded that schools investigate whether their collections include titles that “might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex.”
People and groups advocating for these challenges “do not all share identical aims, but they have found common cause in advancing an effort to control and limit what kinds of books are available in schools,” PEN notes. “Many of these groups use language in their mission statements about parents’ rights or religious or conservative views, some also make explicit calls for the exclusion of materials that touch on race or LGBTQ+ themes.”
The effort has resulted in a surge of censorship attempts that range from the tragic (“The Diary of Anne Frank”) to the hilarious (“Captain Underpants”). In Tennessee, a parent’s group sought to restrict access to a picture book about seahorses because it contained an illustration of the creatures mating, “twisting their tails together and twirling gently around,” while school districts in Missouri recently banned the Holocaust graphic novel “Maus” after the state passed a draconian law criminalizing anyone who provides “sexually explicit material” to students. As I wrote last spring, “Maus” has been a global hotrod for years due to its frank depiction of Holocaust history, even leading to a staged book burning in Poland.
When Missouri-based high school senior Meghana Nakkanti learned that her county’s school board was slated to debate a book ban, she and a group of peers teamed up to push back. Nakkanti hails from an area in the state she described as the heart of the Bible Belt, a community “really conducive to that type of culture war issue because it is very conservative.” Yet when she and her peers surveyed their classmates about school library books, they found little support for book bans: just 5 students out of roughly 340 said they support such restrictions. “Among the student body, there is so much opposition because we all understand that at the end of the day, no one’s forcing us to read,” Nakkanti said. “Even English teachers can’t get us to read actual textbooks.”
Nakkanti and her classmates began showing up to school board meetings to speak out in favor of library books, sometimes to the chagrin of the grown-ups in the room. She recalled one gathering in particular where the behavior of adults who opposed their efforts stood out as especially hostile. “There were these adults two, three, four times our age acting like children,” she said with a wry smile. “And our entire goal was just to remain like the rational ones. Because we are the rational ones.”
Amanda Jones is one among a growing number of librarians who have been publicly labeled as “groomers” promoting “pedophilia,” attacked on social media, harassed and threatened with violence and even criminal prosecution over these issues.
It happened to Martha Hickson too. At a school board meeting in the fall of 2021, a parent accused Hickson — a high school librarian in New Jersey — of grooming children and promoting pornography for including a handful of books in the library about LGBTQ themes. A group of parents filed a series of challenges with the school over the books, and Hickson was inundated with hate mail and attacks on social media. One afternoon, about a month after the meeting, Hickson collapsed from stress at school.
“I couldn’t stop crying. I couldn’t talk full sentences. I was incoherent,” she recalled. At the instruction of her doctor, Hickson went on a brief medical leave and began to take anxiety medication. Though she’s back at work, the situation has continued to take a toll on her mental health. The morning we spoke, Hickson was reeling after experiencing another recent panic attack at work in the wake of a hostile email from a colleague.
“I’m still going through it,” she told me. “I strive to make this library the safest place I can for kids, so that they feel that they can come here, be who they are and feel safe and valued. But I don’t feel safe here anymore. It’s like the world that you knew is shattered.”
A library employee in Missouri, who asked to remain anonymous due to concerns that he could lose his job for speaking to the media, described protestors showing up at the library to harass staff over a sexual education book on the shelves. He does not believe the library has the support of the county government, which appoints library board members and has acquiesced to patrons’ book challenges. Over the last year, stress-induced chest pains have brought him to the hospital emergency room on three separate occasions.
“I love libraries, I want to be working in them for the rest of my life,” he told me. “But if it comes down to the library or my health, I have to choose my health. And this year I have had a lot of reflection on if I’m going to continue my library career. And I feel like more often than not, that answer is no.”
PEN America documented 15 separate cases last year in which people pursued criminal complaints against librarians over “obscene” or “pornographic” materials in school and public libraries. Librarians under pressure have resigned or been fired over their book displays. Members of the extremist group Proud Boys have turned up at school board meetings and bombarded drag and pride-themed story hours at public libraries from California to North Carolina.
A smattering of new bills in state legislatures are raising the stakes even higher. EveryLibrary, the nation’s only political action committee for libraries, is tracking state legislation in Missouri, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Tennessee that is either pending or passed. In Missouri, librarians who are convicted of “providing explicit sexual material to a student” can face jail time.
Carolyn Foote, a former Texas school librarian who co-founded a support group for librarians under attack, said she knows librarians who have lost their jobs or taken leave “because they just couldn’t handle it anymore.” “It’s pretty outside the realm of what most librarians have ever had to cope with,” she told me.
More and more librarians are afraid to share their stories with news organizations or even library groups. When I spoke to the American Library Association’s Caldwell-Stone, she said she received two emails earlier in the day from librarians under duress who had gotten in touch and promptly instructed her not to respond because they were worried someone would find out they were in contact. “That’s the level of fear right now that many library workers are experiencing,” she explained.
“This is the climate that we’re living in, in which people have tried to sow doubt in the very institutions and people who [we’re] supposed to look to as experts,” said Jonathan Friedman, the director of free expression and education at PEN America. “It’s very worrisome for democracy.”
What’s happening today is distinct, but it is not new. Adults have long tried to exercise control over what children learn in public schools, and clashes over ideas and books have been a hallmark of the country’s fractious school wars for at least a century. But a common through line over time has been the conflict between the will of parents to exercise control over what their children learn in public schools and that of the state, a tension that has manifested over the years in the language of what is known as the parents’ rights movement.
In the 1920s, the contested educational material was biology, not sexuality or history. Legislatures in nearly two dozen states proposed anti-evolution bills, including measures that would ban the teaching of Darwinism in schools. Many of these laws were motivated by parents’ concerns that public schools were usurping their authority over what their children learned, even if it conflicted with their ideological or religious beliefs. In the decades that followed, attempts to censor material in public schools took on a range of subjects, from “subversive” textbooks during McCarthyism to books that allegedly promoted atheism amid a 1980s-era moral panic over “secular humanism.” In 2001 and 2002, the most contested book in the nation was Harry Potter. The reason? “Occult” or “satanic” themes.
While it was less common in previous eras to focus attacks on individual librarians, it did happen on occasion, noted the American Library Association’s Caldwell-Stone. She pointed to the case of Ruth Brown, an Oklahoma librarian who attempted to create an interracial storytime at the local library in the 1950s and was later fired for “promoting communism.” “Underlying that was her efforts to integrate the public library,” Caldwell-Stone explained.
What distinguishes the trend today, librarians and library groups say, is the organized effort behind the current campaign to challenge books, the volume of contested titles and the ferocity of the attacks mounted against its targets. But is it book content that’s really pushing this forward? Many experts I talked to are dubious that the legislators and groups driving these efforts are animated by a genuine concern about the material in the challenged books. Rather, they believe many of the organizers of these campaigns are motivated by political opportunism, recognizing a red meat issue for a base group of supporters that can be milked repeatedly to turn a profit and increase turnout for elections.
“The reason that they’re creating the tension around the content of books in libraries is largely monetary gain,” said EveryLibrary’s Sweeney. According to Sweeney, mobilizing support for book challenges has been a fundraising coup for some of the groups involved in this effort.
“They’re raising millions of dollars fighting to keep these books out of libraries,” he said. “It’s very easy for an organization to find a book with a couple of pictures that they disagree with, take two pages out of context, send an email to their email list and ask everybody to donate a dollar in order to help them keep porn from the hands of children.”
Tempting as it may be to characterize this as a uniquely American story, there are echoes of it playing out around the globe. Book bans have taken root in countries that have been labeled backsliding democracies in recent years, including Brazil, Hungary and Turkey.
The parallels to the U.S. are especially striking in Brazil, where conservative lawmakers, in a bid to rid schools of so-called “gender ideology,” have introduced more than 200 bills targeting gender and sexuality education. Like librarians in the U.S., Brazilian teachers whose lessons have addressed gender and sexuality say they have dealt with death threats, severe harassment and accusations of “indoctrinating” students from public officials. One teacher told Human Rights Watch that he was ordered to stop teaching “gender ideology” by a student’s parent who accosted him on the street. “He told me he was a member of a paramilitary group, that he was armed, and that he would shoot me,” he said.
In Turkey, more than 300,000 books have been removed from Turkish libraries and schools over the last several years for their alleged references to Fethullah Gulen, the U.S.-based cleric who the Turkish government claims masterminded a failed coup in 2016. According to Nadine Farid Johnson, the Washington director of PEN America, the purge also has swept up books related to Kurdish culture and history, as well as children’s books accused of containing “obscene” content. Under Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Hungary passed a law in 2021 banning LGBTQ characters from appearing on television or in school materials — legislation that has been compared to Russia’s infamous 2013 anti-gay propaganda law.
It may be easy to write off those examples as unrealistic trajectories in the U.S. But PEN America, which has been tracking book bans, says there are 32 states with at least one ban in place. Johnson told me that 96% of these bans underwent “no process whatsoever.” “If we continue down this path,” she said, “we could begin to see more and more of our freedoms erode.”
As the digital storm began to die down, Jones started to register a different emotion stirring inside. Not anxiety or panic, but genuine rage.
At first, Jones didn’t fight back when angry hordes came after her on social media. She didn’t argue with the commenters calling her a groomer or defend herself from their vicious attacks. But then, something started to change. As Jones put it: “I got pissed!”
She understood that everything that had happened to her — the harassment and the pressure — had a purpose. “The bullies want me to be quiet,” she said. “And so, I decided that I will be the opposite of what they want me to be. My mother did not raise a weakling, and I’m not raising a weakling. It’s important to stand up and speak out.”
She decided it was time to bring the fight to court. “I just kept saying, ‘I’m mad, I’m mad, I’m mad,’” she told me. “I want to sue.”
With the help of a friend, Jones launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise legal fees for an attorney and filed a defamation lawsuit against two people who stated in Facebook posts that Jones shared “sexually erotic and pornographic materials” with young children and advocated “teaching anal sex to 11-year-olds.” The posts, the lawsuit argued, accused Jones of criminal conduct and harmed her personal and professional reputation, portraying her as a “danger to children and exposing her to misplaced contempt and ridicule in the community.”
The judge presiding over the case dismissed Jones’ lawsuit, arguing that the defendants had expressed their opinions in the posts and so their statements were not defamatory. But Jones is undeterred. She filed a motion for a new trial, which the judge denied, and intends to appeal the decision and move the lawsuit forward until her money runs out. Her motivations are two-fold: she wants to see the posters held accountable for what they said about her online, but she also wants to stand up for the profession and the librarians who don’t feel comfortable speaking up. Scores of librarians have reached out to her in the months since her case has gone public. “I’ve had about 300 emails from librarians in the past few months, and a lot of them want to stay silent,” she told me. “They’re very scared to be vocal.”
Jones is not the only one fighting back in court. In Texas, residents of Llano County are suing local officials in federal court for allegedly violating their First Amendment rights over a series of book removals from the public library system. In Missouri, the American Civil Liberties Union recently filed a lawsuit against a school district over its book removal policy after the school board permanently banned a book with a nonbinary gender character from elementary school libraries.
Outside of legal action, various efforts are underway to support library employees under attack and to come to the defense of challenged books. The #FReadom campaign, co-founded by retired librarian Carolyn Foote, provides resources for librarians and schools facing book challenges, letter templates for community members opposing book bans to send to school board members and superintendents and advice for establishing local groups to support school board candidates. It also encourages people to share positive stories of librarians on social media.
The National Coalition Against Censorship has compiled resources for educators dealing with removal requests and a way to report school censorship and material challenges. The American Library Association, which also has a detailed guide for reporting book challenges, recently launched a national “unite against book bans” campaign with resources and strategies for organizing against book challenges at the grassroots level, which is where many of the groups driving book challenges have gained momentum. Dozens of local groups, from Florida to Idaho, have come together to fight censorship threats in school districts and on social media.
For Jones, the fight for now remains in court. Though she is likely to face an uphill battle with her defamation claim, she is ready to push it as far as it can go, and has few, if any, regrets about the choices that led to this moment. I asked Jones if she would have changed her decision to speak out at the library board meeting in July, given all that has happened since.
She didn’t hesitate to answer me. “I’d still do it,” she replied, “in a heartbeat.”
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