BOISE — Recent efforts to ban books in Idaho schools and libraries are part of a coordinated national effort, experts from a panel convened by the City Club of Boise said Friday before an audience of more than 100 at the Idaho State Museum.
“It’s the coordination that makes this moment so different,” said Jonathan Friedman, director of free speech 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 are concerns about “dark money and political organization … some of it is really just stuff that people find on the internet and rally behind. Some of the groups are new, some of the groups are old. All groups seem to have decided that now is the time to look for teachers and librarians together.”
Founded in 1922, PEN America is a nonprofit association of authors, publishers, poets and more; His name was originally an acronym for poets, essayists, novelists. With offices around the world, it not only champions literature and freedom of expression, but also awards prestigious literary prizes and sponsors an annual international literary festival.
Friedman joined Megan Larsen, chair of the Meridian Library District Board of Trustees; and Gena Marker, Centennial High School Library’s teacher librarian, on the lunch panel at a forum titled “Freedom to Read.” The forum was jointly sponsored by the Ada Community Library and The Cabin.
Friedman said that he and his colleagues at PEN call the current push “Ed Scare” and see it as a parallel to the “Red Scare” of McCarthyism in the late 1940s and early 1950s, an anti-Communist hysteria whose people are falsely accused of being Communist sympathizers were fired and blacklisted, ruining careers and reputations.
“One parent shouldn’t be able to dictate what every parent can dictate about their children in a public school,” Friedman explained. “Public schools must be run in accordance with the transcendent imperatives of the First Amendment. They should be places that are very cautious about how they might engage in the official suppression of ideas.”
Larsen said the Meridian Library District has guidelines in place when customers raise concerns about books. In her years on the board, the district has received nine requests to examine the more than 180,000 items in its collection, she said. Five of them were added this year.
“A small but vocal group in our community … has made multiple attempts to circumvent our adopted policy and vetting process to try to remove books from our collection,” she said. This included online harassment and threats. “We will continue to strictly follow our adopted policies and processes,” said Larsen.
Governed by an elected board of directors, the Meridian District has more than 54,000 active library cardholders, and its patrons have visited the library more than 250,000 times this fiscal year to date. It has circulated more than 1.2 million printed and digital items.
“Generations of families have used the Meridian Library and have successfully selected materials for themselves that align with their own values and interests without any interference,” she said. “We strongly support the rights and responsibilities of parents and carers to make these individual decisions for their own families.”
Marker said last year has been “a grueling year for school librarians across the country” as “book ban efforts have swept the country at an alarming rate.”
In Idaho, school libraries have faced about 30 challenges, she said, “and at least 26 of those books ended up being banned in the school districts. My own experiences over the past year have mimicked 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 with students and were frequently checked out before being banned, she noted.
“Parents are 100% responsible for what their own children read, but that shouldn’t prevent what other children have access to,” Marker said.
Friedman said that both across the country and in Idaho, books with LGBTQ themes, characters or authors, and books that deal with race or have characters or authors of color were the most common targets for book banners. Most target lists of book titles they’ve seen online but never read. “You must read the books,” he said. In a Texas school district, the Bible was on a list of books, all of which were banned.
He said anti-sex education sentiment and anti-LGBTQ sentiment in America has long existed in various groups in a “debate that has been unfolding across America for 100 years. … It’s not a group, it’s not an ideology, but it’s a goal. That’s what made it so powerful.”
“It’s clear that people met online and came to a common strategy,” he said.
When several listeners asked what they could do to counteract this pressure, Larsen said to applause: “The number 1: Vote in these local elections, these so-called off-year elections, and tell your friends and neighbors and share.” continue your social media. Vote, vote, vote.”
Friedman said, “Read the book for yourself, see what you think of it. You’ll be surprised.”