Librarians say they face threats, lawsuits, jail fears over ongoing book battles

Written by on April 13, 2024

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(BOISE, Id. ) — Librarians across the country say they’ve become targets in the ongoing battles over books – but the attacks have escalated beyond just calls to remove materials from library shelves.

Several librarians told ABC News they’re facing threats of physical violence, lawsuits and criminal charges for having what some say is “inappropriate” content in libraries and schools where children can access the materials.

“We had people threatening to burn down our building,” said Maegan Hanson, a library director in a small Idaho town.

Hanson’s library had a book on display called “Gender Queer,” a graphic novel by Maia Kobabe. It’s one of the most targeted books in the country because of its LGBTQ content and depictions of sex.

When parts of the book were posted to Facebook, Hanson said the library began receiving online threats. She said fear began to set in among the small crew who work at the library – some of whom are teens and young adults.

“We are in this service because we love the communities that we are a part of and the misinformation and the misrepresentation about what we do hasn’t stopped us from doing our jobs – it just makes it harder,” Hanson said.

The Idaho Library Association, which Hanson is a part of, is concerned that tensions and threats will only get worse now that Idaho Gov. Brad Little signed library content restrictions into law on Wednesday.

House Bill 710 bars schools or public libraries from making materials available to children that are “harmful to minors,” “depict nudity, sexual conduct, or sado-masochistic abuse,” or include “detailed verbal descriptions or narrative accounts of sexual excitement, sexual conduct, or sado-masochistic abuse.”

The law states these books would need to be moved to an “adults only section,” and allows anyone to sue if schools and libraries don’t restrict access to books that are believed to be harmful to children.

“For children, libraries open doors to reading and intellectual exploration, helping them become lifelong learners. It’s no wonder the vast majority of Idahoans say they value libraries and trust librarians,” said Little in his letter after signing the law.

“I share the cosponsors’ desire to keep truly inappropriate library materials out of the hands of minors,” said Little, adding that he also has concerns about the content on minors’ cellphones.

Little vetoed previous efforts to restrict library content, saying past legislation would have forced libraries to shutter their doors by forcing them to pay $2,500 for damages if they made “obscene” materials accessible.

HB710 will make libraries pay $250, on top of other incurred fees or damages, if they violate the law. Little said he was moved to sign HB710 because it also allowed librarians to avoid legal action and fees if they addressed concerns about materials in a certain time frame.

In Little’s letter, he states that literacy is still a top priority for him: “Libraries play such a crucial role in helping our youngsters to read early on.”

For the small libraries of Idaho, directors say hundreds of dollars in lawsuits over books could come at the expense of some library resources and education programming – including early literacy programs, technology support, access to case workers and more.

Hanson’s library had a total operating income of $279,452 in 2021 for the year’s staffing and programming, according to the Idaho Commission for Libraries.

“We have a high poverty population in Idaho and various rural communities, so for these people who are lacking in resources, this content is important,” Hanson said.

Supporters of HB710 argue it’s just a book relocation policy and should not impact libraries that don’t have “inappropriate” content or properly move content out of sections for people under 18.

But some librarians fear that a plethora of material could fall victim to this definition of obscene content, including classical pieces of literature and other popular books, and lead to censorship.

“There’s absolutely going to be the chilling effect of people being so afraid of ordering or having any sort of book that could possibly offend somebody,” said Huda Shaltry, a library director in Boise, Idaho.

“A well-curated public library has something in it to offend everyone,” she said, explaining that having a diverse collection with a wide range of perspectives and subjects available to all is vital to a public library system that serves all.

“[Book restrictions are] very directed to the LGBTQIA+ community but, ultimately, you can make the argument that the Bible’s offensive. There goes the Bible,” Hanson said. “‘50 Shades of Grey,’ OK, it’s offensive. ‘Game of Thrones,’ it’s offensive. Where exactly does it stop? ‘Harry Potter,’ it’s offensive because it teaches witchcraft – It really impedes on people’s First Amendment rights.”

Several renowned, award-winning books have been added to banned books lists for being “offensive,” including “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee, “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison, “Of Mice and Men” by John Steinbeck, “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood and more, according to the American Library Association.

What some might find offensive, Shaltry and Hanson argue, could be helpful to someone else – be it about representation, sexuality, experience with abuse, or other topics, they say.

Shaltry, who says “being a librarian is a calling and not a career” for her, said critics have made hurtful claims and accusations about librarians for displaying content that may contain sex education or sexual content.

“I’m trying not to cry,” said Shaltry in an interview. “The words of being a pedophile and a groomer or stuff – I never thought that I would ever hear any of this stuff.”

Idaho librarians aren’t alone in their challenges – local reports show that libraries nationwide have received bomb threats, others say they’ve been fired for not removing certain books from shelves, and others have been defunded because of content and programming.

​​West Virginia libraries are also facing growing challenges.

If the state’s House Bill 4654 becomes law, employees could be charged with a felony, fined up to $25,000, and sentenced to up to five years in a correctional facility if found guilty of allowing a minor to access material that could be what the state considers to be “obscene.”

“What this bill does do is stop obscene and pornographic material, sexually explicit materials from being available to children in public taxpayer-funded spaces,” said State Delegate Elliott Pritt, a Republican, in a February hearing, according to The Parkersburg News and Sentinel.

The president of the American Library Association has denounced such legislative efforts, calling it “organized censorship.”

“Falsely claiming that these works are subversive, immoral, or worse, these groups induce elected and non-elected officials to abandon constitutional principles, ignore the rule of law, and disregard individual rights to promote government censorship of library collections,” ALA said in a statement objecting to such restrictions.

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