Library advocates push back against calls for censorship

ALBANY — While censorship efforts aimed at banning books in public libraries and schools remain uncommon in New York, skirmishes involving such attempts have nonetheless flared up in far-flung pockets of the state.

One of the showdowns played out this year in the wealthy Long Island suburb of Smithtown. In June, the board of trustees at the Smithtown public library directed staff to remove gay pride displays from the children’s section. The display had been condemned by some library users.

But within days after the New York Library Association and Gov. Kathy Hochul criticized the censorship, the board reconvened and rescinded the earlier vote, declaring it had been taken without “due diligence.”

Censorship was defeated in that instance.

Department of education

But some school boards and other organizations have remained skittish in response to claims by censorship advocates that certain materials should be left out of the reach and view of children.

One such controversy came very close to home last March for the state Department of Education, the state agency that oversees school classrooms in New York.

The education department, which oversees the State Library, tweeted a photo of the state librarian, Lauren Moore, holding the book, “Gender Queer,” with Moore stating, “I’m grateful for books that let my kid know they’re not alone.”

After the twitter post was condemned by conservative activists, the education department released a statement indicating that officials were unaware of the “graphic nature” of its contents. The agency, meanwhile, removed the post from social media and announced it was launching an investigation.

School board rule

That was eight months ago. Asked this week about the status of the investigation, an agency spokesman, J.P. O’Hare, replied: “NYSED considers the matter to be closed and otherwise does not comment on personnel issues.”

Local school boards, faced by demanding members of the public, often have to react more immediately to requests to yank books from school libraries and curriculum.

In New York’s Hudson Valley region, school boards in Mahopac, Wappinger, Yorktown and Carmel have all had to grapple with requests by parents to review books based on concerns with the use of sexual language and graphic depictions of a sexual nature.

While the title “Gender Queer: A Memoir” had never been borrowed from the John Jay School library, the Wappinger school board opted to ban it from the library after one woman argued in a complaint it was inappropriate for children enrolled in middle school. The book includes graphic illustrations of sexual activity.

Books that have a positive view of homosexuality are often the targets of conservative activists. “That’s what usually gets their knickers in a twist,” said Libby Post of Albany, advocacy consultant for a national group representing library trustees: United for Libraries.

“This is an issue of intellectual freedom and the essence of what a library is — providing access to information,” Post said. “If you don’t want your kids looking at something, that’s your choice. Go with them to the library. But youcan’t control what other children see.”

Encouraged by legislators

Efforts to censor school library books discussing homosexuality have been encouraged by a right-wing political advocacy group, New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedom, led by the Rev. Jason McGuire, a registered lobbyist.

The group’s website this year attacked what it called the “shocking” inclusion of LGBTQ resources available from the Ithaca City School District, including links for best practices for teachers dealing with homosexual and transgendered students and suggestions from Planned Parenthood on how to talk about “identity” with preschoolers.

New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms then went on to contend: “The State of New York needs more Christians on its school boards. Could the Lord be calling you to run for a school board seat?” McGuire did not return a request for comment

Push back from groups

Opponents of censorship have also been mobilizing in response to efforts to restrict access to certain titles.

A group called “Unite Against Book Bans” provides resources to parents and community members concerned about preserving access to “a wide variety of information and perspectives,” said Deborah Caldwell Stone, director of the office for intellectual freedom at the American Library Association.

“We encourage individuals who reach out to us to make use of those resources,” Caldwell-Stone said.

While the American Library Association refrains from involvement in partisan politics and offering endorsements to candidates, Caldwell-Stone said the organization does suggest that voters participate in elections and learn about the positions candidates take on the issue important to them.

“In the United States, libraries are not federated as they are in some other countries,” Caldwell-Stone said. “Our school libraries and public libraries are funded by and operated by local communities. and it’s incumbent on everyone in their community to know what’s going on at their local school board meetings and at their local library board meetings because we know that some of these organizations (advocating censorship) specifically targeted school boards and library boards.”

Assemblyman John Salka, R-Madison County, said he sympathizes with the parents who are troubled by the reading material children are allowed to access at schools and local libraries, contending some of it is highly objectionable material.

“What is going on underscores how important it is to be part of your child’s education,” Salka said “Parental involvement and parental role in decisions is crucial. Parents know what’s best for their children.”


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