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Idaho panel: Book-banning push is coordinated, national effort

Sept. 23, 2022 Updated Fri., Sept. 23, 2022 at 10:46 p.m.

Panelists speak during a Freedom to Read forum at the Idaho State Museum on Friday.  (Brian Myrick/Idaho Press)
Panelists speak during a Freedom to Read forum at the Idaho State Museum on Friday. (Brian Myrick/Idaho Press)
By Betsy Z. Russell Idaho Press

BOISE – Recent pushes to ban books in Idaho schools and libraries are part of a coordinated national effort, experts on a panel convened by the City Club of Boise told an audience of more than 100 at the Idaho State Museum on Friday.

“It’s the coordination that makes this moment so different,” said Jonathan Friedman, director of free expression and education programs at PEN America, and lead author of a newly released report titled, “Banned in the USA: The Growing Movement to Censor Books in Schools.”

Friedman said while there’s concern about “dark money and political organization … some of this is really just things people are finding on the internet and rallying behind. Some of the groups are new, some of the groups are old. All of the groups seem to have decided that now is the moment to collectively come after teachers and librarians.”

PEN America, founded in 1922, is a nonprofit association of authors, publishers, poets and more; its name originally was an acronym for Poets, Essayists, Novelists. It has chapters around the world and, in addition to advocating for literature and free expression, bestows prestigious literary awards and sponsors an annual international literary festival.

Friedman joined Megan Larsen, chair of the Meridian Library District board of trustees, and Gena Marker, the teacher-librarian at Centennial High School Library, on the luncheon panel, at a forum titled “Freedom to Read.” The forum was co-sponsored by the Ada Community Library and The Cabin.

Friedman said he and his colleagues at PEN are calling the current push the “Ed Scare,” and see it paralleling the “red scare” of McCarthyism in the late 1940s and early 1950s, an anti-communist hysteria in which people falsely accused of being communist sympathizers were fired and blacklisted, ruining careers and reputations.

“One parent ought not to be able to determine what every parent can decide for their children in a public school,” Friedman declared. “Public schools have to be run in accordance with the transcendent imperatives of the First Amendment. They ought to be places that are very careful about how they potentially engage in the official suppression of ideas.”

Larsen said the Meridian Library District has established policies for when patrons raise concerns about books. In her years on the board, she said, the district has received nine requests for consideration of the 180,000-plus items in its collection. Five of those have come this year.

“A small but vocal group in our community … has tried several attempts to circumvent our adopted policy and reconsideration process to try to get books removed from our collection,” she said. That has included online harassment and threats. “We will continue to strictly follow our adopted policies and processes,” Larsen said.

The Meridian district, governed by an elected board, has more than 54,000 active library card holders, and its patrons have made more than 250,000 visits to the library this fiscal year to date. It’s circulated more than 1.2 million print and digital items.

“Generations of families have used the Meridian Library, successfully choosing materials for themselves that align with their own values and interests without any interference,” she said. “We strongly uphold the rights and responsibilities of parents and caregivers to make those individual choices for their own families.”

Marker said the past year has been “a grueling one for school librarians nationwide,” as “book-banning efforts have swept the country at an alarming rate.”

In Idaho, school libraries have faced around 30 challenges, she said, “and at least 26 of those books were ultimately banned in the school districts. My own experience in the past year mimicked the national trends. I went through two book challenges and both books were subsequently banned by my school district. Both books were by LGBTQ authors and had the same content.”

Both banned books were popular among students and frequently checked out before they were banned, she noted.

“Parents are 100% in charge of what their own children read, but that should not impede what other children have access to,” Marker said.

Friedman said both across the country and in Idaho, books with LGBTQ themes, characters or authors and books that address race or have characters or authors of color have been the most frequent targets of book-banners. Most are targeting lists of book titles they’ve seen shared on the internet, but have never read. “You have to read the books,” he said. In one Texas school district, the Bible was on a list of books that all were banned.

He said sentiment against sex education and against the LGBTQ community have long been around in America among various groups, in a “debate that’s been unfolding across America for 100 years. … It’s not one group, it’s not one ideology, but it’s one target. That’s what’s made this so powerful.”

“It’s clear that people have been meeting online and coming to a shared strategy,” he said.

When multiple audience members asked what they can do to combat this push, Larsen said to applause, “The No. 1 thing: Vote in those local elections, those so-called off-year elections, and tell your friends and neighbors and share on your social media. Vote, vote, vote.”

Said Friedman, “Read the book yourself, see what you think about it. You’ll be surprised.”

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