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The practice of censorship is fundamentally anti-democratic. Free speech is a cornerstone of American democracy, protected in the First Amendment to the Constitution. In April of this year, the American Library Association (ALA) released a report on the top ten most banned books along with the State of America’s Libraries Report.

From our previous article, “In 2020, there were only 200 books on that banned request list. In 2022, there were attempts to restrict access to 1,651 book titles. By April 2023, there have been requests across the fifty states to ban a record number of 2,571 book titles. That is a spike of 1,100 percent in just two years.”

A planned protest of books in the Salida library was cancelled that same month, with a large crowd showing up instead to support the library and its collection.

Last month, the League of Women Voters of Chaffee County (LWVCC) featured Speaker Jamie LaRue at their November presentation on Censorship in Libraries and Schools.  Larue is the Executive Director of Garfield County Libraries.

Jamie LaRue speaks on censorship in libraries and schools. Image courtesy of the LWVCC recording of the event.

While he served as director of the Douglas County Libraries, LaRue responded to 250 challenges (attempts to remove or restrict access to library resources); he oversaw another 1,000 reports of censorship attempts as Executive Director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. These attempts included public meetings and a campaign to force the library to restrict or remove specific titles.

At a recent Buena Vista Board of Education meeting, new member Paula Dylan said she attended the LWVCC event and encouraged her fellow members to watch the recording. Dylan said she hoped to have a more in-depth discussion with Superintendent Lisa Yates to consider how to make the district’s policies related to this topic stronger.

Yates said the school has yet to have a book challenged, though the process is available should someone wish to do so.

At the LWVCC event, LaRue walked the audience through the history of book challenges he has witnessed in his career; from religious objections, to books on Halloween, to a wave of challenges to fairy tales that include concerns about senior alcoholism and worries about scaring children.

LaRue outlined four main reasons he has observed for book challenges: personal prejudice, parental panic, demographic panic, and a will to power.

At the end of his presentation, LaRue recounted a few stories, including one challenge of a racist depiction that eventually led to a change in the actual publication for the better.

Below is the video of LaRue’s presentation to LWVCC:

BVSD Newsletter Provides Overview of School Policies on Censorship

The Buena Vista School District’s (BVSD) December newsletter discussed the topic of censorship in its “BV Schools and What’s in the News” section.

According to the letter, “The district holds firmly our responsibility to provide high-quality literature. While we strive to provide choices in our library that represent diverse viewpoints and are appealing to students, we commit to our collection being quality literature first.  It is ultimately the responsibility of the family to make decisions about the content and appropriateness of topics for their own children.”

It continues to say that the BVSD prioritizes classic, informative, and challenging selection for students, and outlines various ways in which this collection is curated.

The secondary library is used by a wide range of students, so the books are marked with age ranges. Some titles are allowed with parent permission or notification. The librarian also communicates with families about titles selected by students.

Each year, the librarians present an update to the school board of new additions to the collection that support a “diversity of topics and promote the advancement of human dignity.” If a piece of literature is selected for use in a classroom, the teacher submits it for review. If there are “questionable themes or scenes in the text,” common practice has been to notify families, provide a previous copy, and an alternate text if necessary.

The district does have a policy (KEC-E) that allows challenges; however, the newsletter states, “There have not been organized groups challenging books in BV Schools.  In fact, a formal challenge using policy KEC-E has not been brought to the district in the last six years (and there are no records previous to that time).”

Why is talking about censorship important?

While there have been no challenges to BVSD books and the planned protest in Salida against books with LGBTQIA+ content fizzled out, discussion and awareness of censorship are still important.

As with many communities across the country, Chaffee County is not immune, and often the groups targeted by censorship attempts are the most vulnerable. Books about the queer community, people of color, and non-neurotypical people are the most frequently challenged.

Of the top ten most banned books of this year, six were challenged for LGBTQIA+ content with Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe coming in at number one.

Censorship is also a key tenet of fascism. Ark Valley Voice recently outlined other hallmarks of fascism in an article on authoritarian rhetoric from presidential candidate Donald Trump.

According to LaRue, only about three percent of challenges are reported to the Office of Intellectual Freedom (OIF). “Because, as you can imagine, censorship is most successful when nobody talks about it,” explained LaRue. “We encourage people to talk about it, let us know, report it to us so we can track it.”

“We have to figure out what our response as a society will be,” concluded LaRue. “And I believe it has never been more important to step up now, and the League of Women Voters does a particularly good job of this, of really helping our communities to understand what’s at stake right now and the importance of making sure that we listen to each other instead of spending all of our time trying to suppress the thinking of others.”

The ALA provides information on fighting censorship online here.