Riot Headline 10 Exciting Books to Read this Summer
Literary Activism

How Alabama Library Supporters Took Action and You Can, Too: Book Censorship News, June 7, 2024

Kelly Jensen


Kelly is a former librarian and a long-time blogger at STACKED. She's the editor/author of (DON'T) CALL ME CRAZY: 33 VOICES START THE CONVERSATION ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH and the editor/author of HERE WE ARE: FEMINISM FOR THE REAL WORLD. Her next book, BODY TALK, will publish in Fall 2020. Follow her on Instagram @heykellyjensen.

The Autauga-Prattville Public Library, located in the northwest suburbs of Montgomery, Alabama, has been at the center of book challenges and library upheaval for nearly a year. It began with a campaign against so-called “inappropriate” books by the Moms For Liberty-adjacent group Clean Up Prattville. Then came the board — five members of which left in the prior year, opening up the seats to deeply partisan appointments — and its support of making changes that aligned with both the Clean Up group and ongoing pressure from state governor Kay Ivey, who has eagerly been chipping away at support for public libraries for years.

Among the board’s changes was a slate of new policies. Those changes, announced in February 2024, included banning the purchase of books for anyone under 18 that included “sexual content” or queer themes, affixing red labels to all books by or about LGBTQ+ books library-wide, and the board’s total control over decisions related to whether books stay or are removed from the library when a complaint is lodged (the board’s new policies also removed the requirement a patron read the entirety of a book before lodging a formal complaint).

Then, in March, Prattville’s library director, Andrew Foster, and several other employees were fired by the board. They had refused to remove over 100 LGBTQ+ titles from the young adult section at the demand of the board, one of the factors believed to be related to their firing. In response to the firings, library staff members walked out and locked up the library in solidarity with their director.

Prattville might be one public library in one state that many believe is hopeless because it’s a “red state.” But here we are four years into the book banning surge, and it remains important to emphasize that where censorship happens does not matter. It is happening everywhere, even in the so-called “good” “blue states.” Every person, every child, deserves access to materials in their public institutions like libraries and schools.

The reason this has been more prevalent in some states than others isn’t because people deserve it or voted for it. It’s because those people have been systematically disenfranchised or gerrymandered in such a way that their right to democracy doesn’t exist in the same way it does in other states. And, frankly, it’s pretty hateful to believe the child of the harshest, most extreme right-wing folks doesn’t deserve access to a library or school because of the rhetoric that has brainwashed their parents. This fight is on behalf of everyone, not just those deemed more morally superior for having the luck or choice of living in one locality rather than another.

The work is long. It is tiring. It is at a high personal cost. We’ve got enough awareness campaigns and resources. We know that in the last four years, how to fight book bans and challenges hasn’t changed — you need to vote, you need to show up to board meetings (and/or be involved on the board if possible), you have to get into your elected officials’ ears, you need to stay on top of the news, and then, choose one more thing if time and energy permit. One of those choice things might be getting involved with groups who can collaborate on a bigger mission than can be accomplished by an individual alone.

That way forward is most likely through legal and legislative actions.

Weeks after the unceremonious firing of Foster and other employees from the Prattville library, the library was hit with two lawsuits. The first came from Foster himself against the board. It was settled out of court in late May. The second lawsuit was filed in early May by Read Freely Alabama, who has been on the ground fighting against the censorship and destruction of Prattville Public Library. Read Freely Alabama is joined in the lawsuit by the Alabama Library Association — the state’s largest professional organization for library workers — and local community members who use the Prattville library.

The second lawsuit, filed in the US District Court for the Middle District of Alabama, alleges that the policies created by the board in February violate First and Fourteenth Amendment rights. Not only are the policies overly broad, they discriminate on the basis of content. This week, I talked with several plaintiffs bringing the case against the Autauga-Prattville Public Library Board of Trustees about what they hope comes of the work they’re doing and, equally important, how the work they’re doing can inform, inspire, and catalyze similar work across the country.

Can you talk a little bit about the ways Read Freely Alabama and the Alabama Library Association have been working together to push back against extremism at Prattville?

Read Freely Alabama grew out of the fight where a small, extremist minority started filing book challenges over a children’s board book about inclusive pronouns in spring of 2023 in the town of Prattville, Alabama. This tactic is similar to the battles in Texas and Florida, and we knew instantly that this wasn’t just about Prattville’s public libraries. As parents under the Moms For Liberty-adjacent group Clean Up Alabama (first called Clean Up Prattville) lined up to falsely accuse librarians and public libraries of sexualizing children and calling for the banning of books, Prattville parent Angie Hayden stood up at the microphone and said: “I just want you to know there is more than one type of concerned parent in Prattville.” Thus, Read Freely Alabama began. RFA started organizing under a private Facebook group started by Sam Olson.

As Alabama public libraries began facing similar challenges, groups started forming to push back against the misinformation spread by Clean Up Alabama and Moms For Liberty, some as alliances and some as RFA chapters. A librarian living in Prattville, Jessica Hayes, joined the fight by getting librarians involved with RFA and ensuring a coalition effort between the existing professional networks and RFA. Now, we have at least seven chapters and a senior leadership team overseeing our statewide fight. We were also concerned because we understand that this fight is coming in the context of broader attacks targeting LGBTQ+ and racial minorities in Alabama and around the country. Many of us also knew that book bans were unpopular with people on both sides of the aisle. Our mission from the first was to represent the apolitical nature of the library and empower parents and guardians to fight for their right to choose reading material for their families, regardless of political affiliation. Our messaging has highlighted the hypocrisy of so-called far-right parental rights movements while communicating the true constitutional and civil rights of every Alabamian to find representation on library shelves in all sections of the library.

What led you to choose to file a lawsuit? What work went on behind the scenes to make that happen?

Because of the deep pride we hold for this state and our love for our libraries, we felt compelled to speak out against the Autauga-Prattville Public Library Board’s new harmful policies that were resulting in banning books from our libraries. This was also true for the Alabama Library Association, which also decided to become involved as a result of our professional ethics and desire to stand up to the bullies who insulted and demeaned our profession for the past year. These new policies unlawfully censor and discriminate against certain types of materials and speech. They violate our First Amendment rights to make sure the government isn’t privileging some perspectives over others. Politicians shouldn’t be dictating what our kids get to read, parents should be. And the Alabamians we were each talking to about this situation agreed with us. These unlawful censorship policies have no home in our state. So, we decided it was time to go on offense. This lawsuit empowered us to proactively fight for democracy. Though we come from across the religious and political spectrum, we came together to take action because we share an intense pride in our home state — and its deep history in the fight for civil rights — and we cannot sit on the sidelines at this critical moment.

How did you frame the issue when you filed the lawsuit? What angle did you take and where/how do you see this playing out in Prattville? What about in other current book banning situations?

Put simply, what we are arguing is that parents, not politicians, should have the power to make the decisions on what our children read. In our lawsuit, we acknowledge that everyone agrees the library shouldn’t offer “obscene” materials, just like everyone agrees it makes sense to have a separate section for adults (which our library already has). But the Board’s new criteria for library books go way beyond that. They are overly broad and will gut the library’s collection of books that grownups and young adults have a constitutional right to read. The way these rules are written, To Kill a Mockingbird could be off-limits to our kids even with our permission. The classic works we grew up reading — Anne of Green Gables, Little Women — all fall under the Board’s ban. Not only do the rules hold 7-year-olds and 17-year-olds to the same standards, but they could also mean that an adult who wishes to check out a Young Adult book about an LGBTQ+ character for their own reading will no longer be able to.

What censorship stories outside of Prattville have you been following? Have you worked with or networked with other anti-book ban groups beyond Alabama?

Sadly, book bans and censoring children’s access to information are not just happening here in Prattville. The recent nationwide uptick in book banning, curriculum censorship, and intentionally reduced representation in schools and the public sphere is extremely concerning. We all firmly believe that libraries — and the resources they offer — should be inclusive of and accessible to all students, families, and communities. Yet extremists are pushing a censorship agenda. Censorship not only threatens who we see and hear from — it threatens the very fabric of our participatory democracy. But our hope with this legal action is that by stopping these attacks on access to information here, we can show these Orwellian efforts to be unconstitutional on a statewide level, too.

What worries you about book banning and extremism toward libraries and schools right now?

We worry about what it says to young people whose stories are represented in books like Heather Has Two Mommies, which has been heavily targeted in Alabama over the last year. It’s ironic that the story we are told is that these extremist groups are trying to protect children. It seems to us that they’re doing the exact opposite to marginalized children and their families. Anyone who is aware of the history of book banning sees the danger, but what many people do not realize is that the first books to be burned in Hitler’s Germany were books on transgender and gay people. One of our founding members, Sam Olson, has said from the beginning that these books are a proxy for human beings. It’s not just about books on a shelf; it’s about who is allowed to be seen as a valid human being worthy of representation. It’s about whether or not those human beings deserve space on those shelves. Removing or restricting access to these materials teaches our children that there is only one acceptable way to be. Only one acceptable kind of person. People aren’t a monolith.

Our children will grow up feeling ashamed of their differences. And what’s even more damaging, is without books talking about different kinds of people, adults and children alike will feel empowered to target people who don’t look, act, or think like them. These extremists are going after our most vulnerable, rural communities. Alabama’s rural communities are often left behind in state funding and resources, while unfairly maligned as ignorant and backward in popular media. However, residents in our Alabama rural communities have become the fiercest advocates for civil liberties and First Amendment rights.

What gives you hope?

We talk all the time about how encouraged we are to see so many Alabamians standing up against these waves of censorship. What gives us hope is knowing that the extremists truly are just a very loud minority and that the vast majority of people, even here in such a traditionally red state, see the danger inherent in these pushes for censorship and erasure and are pushing back. It’s been interesting to see what a uniting issue this has turned out to be; in a time when everyone seems so polarized, the freedom to access information and the right of all kinds of people to be represented in public spaces like libraries has largely proven to be something that brings people from all political and religious beliefs together. The number of people standing behind us is proof of that.

Jessica Hayes adds that for the librarians representing the Alabama Library Association, they see hope in the fact they are even participating in this lawsuit. Too long have Alabama librarians, including the ALLA, been too quiet, timid, and subservient; to quote ALLA President Craig Scott, this time we are bringing out the “haymaker” and fighting back. As a parent, seeing the amount of support there is behind our movement gives me so much hope. Our children shouldn’t have to grow up in a world where they feel shame for what they or their families look like. Seeing the majority of people supporting our freedom to access material in the public library shows me that even though we may not align on all things, we do all have one thing in common. We all believe everyone deserves representation in our public library.

Book Censorships News: June 7, 2024