How do librarians navigate challenges to intellectual freedom when each library can function differently due to administrations and board members, and also when challenges range from self-censorship to book removal to disciplinary action?
Another obstacle to having an action plan is developing an understanding of the ideas being spread promoting censorship, which currently is Critical Race Theory.
Tasslyn Magnusson is an educator and a member of children’s literacy organizations who has worked to create the website CRT Toolkit to support educators, parents, and community members who are concerned about misrepresentations and attempts at unjust censorship.
She said that when googling Critical Race Theory, she found “fear-based ‘toolkits’ for parents to get active at their school boards and in their kids’ classrooms created by organizations with names like Heritage Action for America and Citizens for Renewing America. And they were very much NOT trying to support educators and books and stories that represented all of American history and diverse stories.I was astonished by the instructions and detail these toolkits gave to parents – and appalled by the disinformation throughout the kits. ”
“I decided if I needed tools – other parents and community members might need them too.”
Her website includes a helpful FAQ document which supports people who engage in conversations with those who assert nefarious attempts at propaganda are taking over public schools. It also includes social media post templates and advice for getting active in stopping the spread of disinformation.
She has also been tracking challenges nationwide using this spreadsheet, including tracking groups like Moms for Liberty and groups defending rights like NH-V Intellectual Freedom Fighters. One criticism voiced by librarians is a lack of centralized data or information to help them when a situation arises. Magnusson’s spreadsheet is an attempt to connect librarians amid this spreading crisis, which isn’t always an easy task given how much libraries can differ from county to county, let alone state to state.
If asked, “Are you teaching CRT?” Magnusson advises teachers to simply state the definition, that Critical Race Theory is a legal framework used by legal scholars. Encourage others to understand that “Learning about the past helps all of us understand how to function in the world that exists. It is true that American society was shaped by slavery, and we live in a multi-ethnic diverse society.”
In her opinion, the media does bear some responsibility for spreading disinformation. “I think the ‘media’ needs to stop ‘both sides’ -ing these kinds of attacks.” If one side is nothing but disinformation, there is no way to defend that. The media should instead give more space to teachers and school administrators in the national spotlight through the media. “How are they feeling when their work and professionalism is being challenged in such a fashion? What are they worried about for kids they educate?”
Having prepared talking points is helpful as well. The FReadom organization has worked on creating scenario cards for librarians that include preprepared responses that help librarians practice how to react and respond to fears and challenges.
Award-winning author Ashley Hope Perez reminds us that these groups are simply being really loud. She encourages parents to become aware of the work libraries are doing: “Teachers and librarians are so worthy of trust. It’s frustrating to be positioned as an enemy rather than as a partner. We should use these extreme examples as a rallying point for all the grateful parents, to encourage them to be the ones filling the seats in school board meetings and help make the meetings safe for others to come.”
Magnusson also agrees that parents and community members should attend board meetings and listen to teachers from a supportive stance. Support increased funding. Find those who are already doing the work, such as Nikole Hannah Jones, Dr. Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, Cornelius Minor and the work of EduColor.
But most importantly, “we need to support the voices of the young people in our community who have opinions and are currently taking action themselves to advocate for education that reflects the world they live in right now. From gun reform to climate to education, young people are speaking up and out and asking for what they need to be informed advocates in the world. Listen to them. Support their voices.
We don’t move on from the conflicts – they’ve been there for a long time. We just are living in the intersection of social media and capitalism and challenges to white supremacy where suddenly more/new people are paying attention. We listen to the people who’ve been there all along – activists, educators, reformers, and teachers – they’re showing us the path to change and path through these conflicts to an America based in justice and equity and reflects a promise denied to so many for so long.”
Librarians should also aim to continue educating students and patrons about the freedom to read. Partner with classroom teachers to offer learning experiences related to reading court cases, debating outcomes, writing letters to the editor, attending meetings to make their voices heard. Lots of times censorship is quiet, such as the Greenville County School District instructional personnel removing a book simply because it heard of the controversy, not because of an actual complaint. In those cases, students will probably never know an infringement occurred. It is only by educating those who have the most to lose, young people just beginning their journey alongside American democracy, and teaching them how to soundly combat unconstitutional censorship, that the freedom to read freely remains a constitutional right, part of the foundation of our democracy.
After all, in the foundational 1982 Island Trees vs. Pico Supreme Court case, the suit was initiated by 5 students, Steven Pico, Jacqueline Gold, Glenn Yarris, Russell Rieger, and Paul Sochinski, after Island Trees school district board members were made aware of “objectionable” books after attending a meeting of “Parents of New York United (PONYU), a politically conservative organization of parents concerned about education legislation in the State of New York.” Sounds like history is repeating itself.
Jamie M. Gregory is a National Board Certified Teacher in Library Media. She is the recipient of the 2021 Media Literacy Teacher Award from the National Association for Media Literacy Education, the 2022 SCASL School Librarian of the Year, and the 2022 recipient of the Eli M. Oboler Memorial Award.