Fired Up about Censorship

by Courtney Kincaid, assistant library director at North Richland Hills Library and chair of the TLA Intellectual Freedom Committee, and Brooke King, Middle School Librarian in Humble ISD, TxASLTalks Editorial Board

After facing a book and policy challenge in the summer of 2015 which lasted 21 weeks, Courtney Kincaid became involved in the Texas Library Association’s (TLA) Intellectual Freedom Committee. She now serves as chair of the committee and together with incoming vice-chair Brooke King, shares how to prepare for and survive a censorship challenge in a public or school library.

Censorship is removing books, relocating books, and restricting access to books. When individuals or groups attempt to have materials removed from a library based on obscenity, blasphemy, political concerns, etc., the TLA Intellectual Freedom Committee recommends following these procedures. 

Know Your Policies 
Have clear collection development, selection, deselection, and reconsideration policies and procedures in place which have been approved by the library’s governing authorities. Be sure all library employees are familiar with the policies; know where to find them, and how to talk with users who are upset about an item. Educate stakeholders such as friends groups, boards, administrators, teachers, parents of students, etc. to make sure they are aware of the policies. Review the policies often and make sure you are familiar with any updates. In schools, be aware of any possible technicalities or other policies that may override the district’s such as State Board of Education policy. 

Listen calmly and courteously to the complainant. Remember, the person has a right to express a concern and they want to know that they have been heard and taken seriously. Communicate the need for diversity in a library’s collection and resources, and review the collection development policy. The individual may be reacting to just a small portion of the item, so ask if they have read the entire book, or viewed the entire video or DVD. Remind parents that they have the right to monitor what their child reads. Suggest that they use this as an opportunity to reinforce what types of materials they find offensive with their child so that they won’t check out such material in the future. If the person is not satisfied, provide a Request for Reconsideration form and a copy of the library’s collection development policy. Once the individual completes and submits the form, make certain to send an initial reply promptly. Keep clear and detailed notes of any conversations or correspondence. 

It is essential to notify the library’s advisory and governing authorities of the complaint as soon as possible. Assure them that the library’s policies and procedures are being followed. Present full, written information giving the nature of the complaint and provide the material(s) being challenged. 

Read, watch, and research the items in question, and ask other employees to as well. Let your advisory and governing boards review the items. Prepare all necessary documentation (how long have the items been in the collection, publisher reviews, how the items fit in your collection development policy, how many times the item has been checked out, etc.). Be prepared to justify your book selection based on your collection policy, professional reviews, etc. If a committee is used to evaluate the challenged material, be informed about your state’s open meeting and public record laws. Finally, have the committee provide a decision letter to the complainant. If the decision is appealed past the library board or committee, it could possibly go to a court system. Laws governing obscenity, subversive material, and other questionable matter are subject to interpretation by courts. The 1982 case, Board of Education v. Pico, is referenced throughout many censorship situations and has mostly prevented school and library book censorship by public schools. 

Library Bill of Rights 
Your strongest arguments against censorship are found in the principles of the Library Bill of Rights, adopted June 19, 1939, by the American Library Association (ALA) Council. The Library Bill of Rights should guide our profession, and our policies and procedures to support intellectual freedom. The Library Bill of Rights is not legally enforceable, it is a statement of professional principles, TLA 2018 Exhibitor Directory Edition 13 but it is based on the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Prepare for any challenges by adopting the Library Bill of Rights in your library’s policies. Libraries must abide by their approved policies and procedures when dealing with censorship. Not following adopted policies during a challenge further complicates the situation for everyone involved. 

TLA Intellectual Freedom Committee and ALA Office of Intellectual Freedom 
TLA, TLA’s Intellectual Freedom Committee, and the ALA Office of Intellectual Freedom have resources and information to support you throughout the challenge process. Notify them of the complaint, and enlist their advice and support along with help and guidance from other organizations (see sidebar contacts). Report any censorship to report. All personal and institutional information submitted via the form is kept confidential. 

Community Support 
When appropriate, inform local and civic organizations, parent groups, and other stakeholders to enlist their support for the library. Meet negative pressure with positivity. This is your chance to talk about the diverse collection for your diverse community. Anticipate difficult questions, stay calm and friendly, and be truthful. A library’s collection should represent its entire community. We promise you have a more diverse community than you think! As a leader in the community, communicate the positive qualities and resources your library provides for everyone. Rely on supportive organizations to help tout the importance of the library. 

Freedom to read and freedom of the press go hand in hand, so your local media will most likely be a source of support. Be sure to provide accurate information regarding the issue as you will most likely be asked for a statement. Always stick to the truth and your policies. 

Libraries serve communities with a diverse range of ages, interests, and cultures. The books and items you select may be just right for one subgroup, but not others. Be proactive with sharing information about intellectual freedom, post the Freedom to Choose/Freedom to Read poster in the library and on your website, and celebrate Banned Books Week. Teach staff, users, and students how to select materials that are appropriate for their individual needs. As an example of interacting and guiding younger users, if a student brings a more mature book to the circulation desk, conference with her/him and explain that the book briefly (or heavily) focuses on X subject. Then let the student make the decision if the book is appropriate or not. Remind them they can return any book at any time and check out something new. You may or may not ever experience a book challenge, but you play an important role in the right to information and educating others of this right. Please consult ALA’s Intellectual Freedom Manual (9th edition) for more information. 

Banning books gives us silence when we need speech. It closes our ears when we need to listen. It makes us blind when we need sight. – Stephen Chbosky

Article first published in Texas Library Journal, vol. 94, no. 1, Spring 2018. Used with permission.