Whitworth Event Addresses Defending Libraries for Democracy
Deborah Caldwell-Stone spoke to Whitworth audience about public libraries under siege and the threat to the First Amendment’s right to intellectual freedom.
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News Story by John McCallum | FāVS News
Libraries and the professionals who work in them are under siege, facing harassment, threats, censorship and even defunding and closure over the very rights they embody and seek to uphold.
For Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association’s (ALA) Office for Intellectual Freedom, the siege is part of an organized campaign by a well-organized, loud and vocal minority striving to impose their views and beliefs on the rest of U.S. society — an effort that threatens majority rights, freedoms and liberties she said are “indivisible.”
“We should not consent to this idea that any one group of people, or any one individual, however powerful or loud should be allowed to become the decision-maker about whether libraries exist, what we’re allowed to read and what we’re allowed to think about or whether our lives or identity are acknowledged by the community,” Caldwell-Stone told an audience at Whitworth University’s Weyerhaeuser Hall Monday night. “To allow this, places all rights and liberties in jeopardy.”
Caldwell-Stone’s appearance at Weyerhaeuser was part of the university’s celebration of Constitution Week, Sept. 17-23. This year marks the 236th anniversary of the signing of the country’s founding document, and Caldwell-Stone’s presentation “The First Freedom: The First Amendment, Libraries & Democracy” focused on what the amendment means to society and the modern threats to it taking place.
Intellectual freedom under attack
“The freedom to receive information is every bit as important as the freedom to share it,” Erica Salkin, associate dean of Whitworth’s College of Arts and Sciences, said in a news release announcing Caldwell-Stone’s appearance.
“It’s perhaps never been more critical to harness the power of information literacy and the ability to sort fact from fiction when we ingest messages from the media,” Dean of Library & Special Programs, Amanda Clark, added.
Libraries are more than just repositories for books, periodicals and encyclopedias. Caldwell-Stone said they serve as community meeting places, provide services like broadband internet, job seeking information, resources for veterans and seniors to access services as well as researching and accessing government documents.
Libraries give everyone the same opportunities
They are also great equalizers, as everyone who enters a library is on the same level as everyone else when it comes to being able to access this information and use the library’s resources. Anyone can access this information without restrictions — something federal courts have acknowledged and upheld over the years and is at the core of the First Amendment’s list of rights and the Constitution.
“The fundamental principle of the First Amendment is all people must have access to places to speak and listen, contemplate, and then speak and listen again,” Caldwell-Stone said. “These are forums set aside for the free expression and exchange of ideas.”
Caldwell-Stone, a journalist at heart but an attorney by training, said courts have held that “everyone possesses an absolute and positive right to enter and use a library.”
Previous attempts to prevent access to information such as moving children’s picture books on sex education to the adult section and requiring dress codes to enter the library have been ruled unconstitutional and overturned.
She said there have always been complaints to libraries about books on their shelves some people may not like. Books on secular humanism, and even the Harry Potter series have been the subject of book banning attempts over imagined fears reading these selections will cause harm to individuals.
But over the past few years, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic, efforts to remove books have broadened and intensified, fueled by social media’s ability to spread misinformation about subjects and organize resistance.
Caldwell-Stone said it’s no longer single individuals complaining about one book who are behind these censorship efforts, but partisan groups with agendas such as Moms For Liberty, Mass Resistance and No Left Turn on Education.
Just how many books are being challenged today?
According to information gathered by the ALA, there were 347 challenges to books and graphic novel titles in the U.S. in 2018 and 377, involving 566 unique titles, in 2019. That fell to 156 in 2020 as schools and libraries were closed most of the year due to pandemic health restriction measures.
In 2021, that jumped to 729 challenges. These challenges were made of 1,597 unique book titles, meaning some challenges listed several books.
In 2022, that nearly doubled to 1,272 challenges of 2,571 unique books titles.
“These numbers reflect a disturbing trend, that efforts to ban books are no longer a conversation between a parent or a reader raising concern about a book,” Caldwell-Stone said. “Instead, we’re seeing organized groups challenge 10, 15, 25 or even 50 books at one time.”
Caldwell-Stone said groups like Moms For Liberty draw and circulate lists through private social media accounts of books they have deemed unfit to be on library shelves, often under the guise of “protecting children” from discussion of topics they determine are harmful. These lists have led to 90% of removal demands in 2022 being for multiple titles, with 40% demanding removal of over 100 or more titles at one time.
“This is an organized campaign to censor entire genres, entire bodies of work out of libraries so no one can access them, so that they conform with one group’s idea of what is appropriate to know and think about,” Caldwell-Stone said.
Targeting specific groups, ideas
Caldwell-Stone said in 2023 the ALA has tracked 151 pieces of legislation being advanced in state capitals to restrict access to books and information by young people. Some have amended existing laws to allow libraries and library professionals to be prosecuted for “the single act of handing a constitutionally protected book to a young reader.”
Most of these censorship efforts have centered on issues of sexuality, mainly books about the lives and experiences of same-sex couples and transgender individuals. Also high on this list are books about the United States’ “difficult history” regarding race and the experiences of all people of color.
“Again, under the theory that it harms or impairs young people to be exposed to difficult topics and difficult ideas,” Caldwell-Stone said.
In fact, she said they are hearing the opposite from young people, particularly those of color and different gender orientation, who say removing books that reflect their lived identity has an impact — especially books removed from school libraries, where a lot of the recent effort to ban books began.
“They feel excluded, that they do not belong in that school because their books do not belong in the library,” Caldwell-Stone said.
Caldwell-Stone said federal courts have ruled libraries are public forums, and as such fall under First Amendment protections. While school libraries are classified as non-public forums, and as such have some discretion as to providing “educationally suitable” content, they, too, must adhere to the First Amendment requirements for access to information and intellectual freedoms.
Threat of library closures
The controversy has led to strains on public libraries, especially smaller libraries in rural communities such as Dayton. Because requests last year by some individuals to move or take out books they deemed pornographic were not fulfilled, a measure to defund and close the library was put for the upcoming Nov. 7 election.
Caldwell-Stone said this practice of moving to defund libraries who don’t conform to a few individuals desire to remove materials is becoming more common. Dr. Emily Knox, University of Illinois associate professor for communication, information and library studies, has compared such moves to close libraries to similar decisions in the 1960s in the U.S. South to close public swimming pools rather than desegregate them.
In some cases, local governments have stepped in and attempted to regulate the operations of public libraries. Caldwell-Stone said this is done under the guise of the “theory of government speech,” which asserts governments have the right to express their opinion and ideas and can use libraries as their instrument to do this.
Libraries “not arms of the state”
Such an attempt occurred locally this past May when the Liberty Lake City Council approved an ordinance on a 4-3 vote that would have given it the sole ability to approve or reject library policies proposed by the library board. The ordinance failed to go into effect after Liberty Lake Mayor Cris Kaminskas vetoed it, noting the library board members 92 years of collective experience provided better understanding of library policy than that of the City Council.
Caldwell-Stone said a recent ruling in a case in Arkansas by U.S. District Judge Timothy Brooks noted a public library is not an arm of the state, and shouldn’t restrict opinions or impose a specific orthodoxy on the rest of a community.
“The public library belongs to the people, not the state,” Caldwell-Stone said. “It belongs to you.”
Other efforts to censor libraries arise from the belief that because people opposing certain books are taxpayers, they should have a say in the content libraries offer. Caldwell-Stone said this overlooks the fact that those who want such materials accessible through public libraries are also taxpayers.
She also noted claims by people that some of these materials are “obscene” and “pornographic” result from a misunderstanding of what constitutes legal obscenity in the U.S. It also stems from a misunderstanding about the First Amendment’s guarantees to rights of intellectual freedom.
Becoming more visible
All of this has put pressure not only on libraries but on librarians and other professionals involved — most of whom have received advanced degrees in library sciences and know and understand the processes and practices involved in providing information for everyone.
During a discussion after her presentation, several people asked Caldwell-Stone what they can do to support libraries and bring attention to the need to maintain unrestricted access to information — information Caldwell-Stone said is vital to a free, democratic and self-governing society.
“If I protest on the sidewalk, am I fueling the fire in the wrong direction?” one woman asked.
“I think providing visible support to libraries and librarians is essential right now,” Caldwell-Stone said. “Many librarians are feeling alone and isolated.”
Caldwell-Stone noted that many of the censorship advocacy groups such as Moms For Liberty have been very visible in their opposition to library content, and it’s time for those who support libraries and the freedom of information to become similarly visible.
She also encouraged people to get involved by writing letters to the editor and their local elected officials, voting their support and becoming involved with library support groups, such as United Against Book Bans initiative. She also encouraged participation with organizations such as the National Coalition Against Censorship, the ALA’s Freedom to Read Foundation, which Caldwell-Stone serves as the executive director of, and Pen America.
“One thing you can do is go to your library and tell them you love them and support them,” Caldwell-Stone said. “Be willing to raise your voice. They (censorship advocates) want us to believe we don’t have power. We do have power. Show up and vote.”
John McCallum is a freelance writer living in Liberty Lake. A graduate of Eastern Washington University with degrees in Journalism and Radio-Television, John spent 21 years at the Cheney Free Press as an award-winning staff reporter, editor, managing editor and photojournalist; writing and photographing people, places and things ranging from government to education, sports, religion and current affairs. He is a member of Spokane’s Knox Presbyterian Church, has served as a church leader on session and participated in worship through a variety of roles ranging from pulpit speaking to the Knox Drama Team. He is a member of the Presbytery of the Inland Northwest Guatemala Task Force, making six mission trips to that Central American country. John enjoys time with his wife, Sheila, and their Dachshund, Lacey, at home and on the road — especially the Oregon Coast — along with running, biking and kayaking.