Cast as criminals, America’s librarians rally to their own defense

Feb 5, 2024

POST FALLS: During 12 years as a youth librarian in northern Idaho, Denise Neujahr read to and befriended children of many backgrounds. Devout or atheist, gay or straight, all were welcome until a November evening in 2021, when about two dozen teens arriving at the Post Falls library for a meeting of the “Rainbow Squad” encountered a commotion at the entrance.
Members of a local church waved signs with images of hellfire and used a bullhorn to shout Bible verses and accusations about sin and pedophile “groomers” in the library. Parents had to escort the teens inside that night, and the library beefed up security. But the next month, police arrested a protester outside the doors who was carrying a knife and a loaded gun.
In May, religious conservatives won a majority on the library board and named as its chair a member who had called the Rainbow Squad a “sex club.” Neujahr, who created the group as a program of crafts, snacks and conversation for LGBTQ youth and their parents, said she was told the group’s funding was in danger. But she refused to disband it.
“They’re really good kids,” Neujahr said. “It just makes me so sad that they have to go through all this hate. This is not what libraries stand for.”
As America’s libraries have become noisy and sometimes dangerous new battlegrounds in the nation’s culture wars, librarians like Neujahr and their allies have moved from the stacks to the front lines. People who normally preside over hushed sanctuaries are now battling groups that demand the mass removal of books and seek to control library governance. Last year, more than 150 bills in 35 states aimed to restrict access to library materials and to punish library workers who do not comply.
“We’re no longer seeing a parent have a conversation with a teacher or librarian about a book their child is reading,” said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, the director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. “We’re seeing partisan groups demand the removal of books that they’re told are bad books, that they are not even reading, because they don’t meet the political or moral agenda.”
Activists say they are protecting children from sexually explicit material and exploitation, while conservative politicians seek to harden the bans into policy. Project 2025, the Heritage Foundation’s 900-page ideological blueprint for a potential second Donald Trump administration, declares in its opening pages that “pornography, manifested today in the omnipresent propagation of transgender ideology and sexualization of children,” should be stripped of First Amendment protection and outlawed.
“The people who produce and distribute it should be imprisoned. Educators and public librarians who purvey it should be classed as registered sex offenders,” the document says.
The battles are being waged in places like Clinton, Tennessee, where a reluctant library ally, the local sheriff, spoke out against censorship. In Pella, Iowa, two women organized a successful campaign against a proposal to force the town library under city control. And in Idaho, after Neujahr received an award for her work with the Rainbow Squad, people threatened her life and posted her family members’ personal information online.

‘What Is Explicit Is Subjective’

Sheriff Russell Barker had a problem. As the chief law enforcement officer for Anderson County in the mountains of eastern Tennessee, he had handled narcotics, assault and other criminal investigations — not the review of children’s books about sex and gender identity.
But this past year, after residents found what they said were more than a dozen pornographic titles in the county’s four libraries, local officials asked the sheriff to determine whether two of the targeted titles violated Tennessee’s obscenity law. If so, librarians, staff or board members — the sheriff told officials he didn’t know who — might be subject to arrest.
Every one of the books appeared on lists posted by, a Florida-based organization that reviews books for descriptions of sex, violence or other content it deems unacceptable for children. Its conclusions have become a resource for people challenging books in public schools and libraries. Caldwell-Stone calls BookLooks part of “a well-coordinated, well-funded campaign.” Emily Maikisch, the Florida parent who founded BookLooks, said it is a volunteer group that accepts no outside money.
“Ultimately our ratings are our opinions,” she wrote in an email. “We encourage folks using our material to make their own determination.”
The two books given to the sheriff for review were “Let’s Talk About It: A Teen’s Guide to Sex, Relationships and Being a Human” by Erika Moen and Matthew Nolan, and “Gender Queer,” a 2019 graphic-novel-style memoir by Maia Kobabe that is the most banned book in the United States. The author, who is nonbinary, explores puberty and sexual identity in the book, which includes some drawings of nudity and sexual scenarios.
“These books were brought to the county commission, and we had an obligation to act,” a county commissioner, Denise Palmer, said in a commission meeting last spring in the county seat, Clinton, a town of 10,000 about 15 miles from Knoxville. “I felt like that they may teeter on the law.”
Controversy was not new to Clinton, the site of the first high school in the South to be integrated by court order, in 1956, in compliance with the Supreme Court’s decision two years earlier in Brown v. Board of Education. In 1958, up to 100 sticks of dynamite planted in the high school reduced it to rubble. No one was injured. No one was ever arrested.
While Anderson County is still mostly white, residents say it is different now, with liberal transplants attracted by a growing tech sector encompassing the former Manhattan Project site of Oak Ridge. But change has again brought backlash, including from some Christian conservatives.
In late March, more than 250 people packed the Clinton Community Center for a charged public meeting, recorded on video. It happened to be on the same day that three children and three adults died in a mass shooting at the Covenant School in Nashville, Tennessee. Police said the shooter identified as transgender. Some who spoke at the meeting were further upset by the tragedy.
“We just had a young man who has fooled himself to believing he was a woman kill six people and himself was killed today,” Jill Brown, a county resident, said when she came to the microphone. “If that is not a testimony of how messed up this whole transgender strategy is, agenda is, then I don’t know what is.”
Jack Mansfield, a retired Oak Ridge police officer, shook his finger in fury at four county librarians at the front of the room. “You librarians, you’re providing this material; you can be arrested too!” he shouted. (Children younger than 11 cannot visit Anderson County libraries without an adult, and those younger than 18 need parental permission to get a library card.)
Miria Webb, the Clinton library director, felt under siege. “I’ve served this community for more than a decade, and I was born and raised in East Tennessee,” she said in an interview. “Those words hurt. They kind of strike to your core.”
Three weeks later, the county commissioners met to hear Barker’s findings. Tommy Mariner, a retired Navy pilot and former schoolteacher who serves on the library board, spoke first.
“What is happening today, the threats being made toward people’s liberty, toward people’s jobs, is wrong,” he said. “We saw in 1958 how simmering hatreds within the community blew up the high school across the street. This is not something that might just happen here. This is something that has happened here.”
Then it was Barker’s turn. He told the commissioners that he planned to follow library policy and file a request that the library restrict children’s access to the two books he had reviewed. He said that some of their content personally offended him, but neither violated state or federal law.
“For me, again, this is about freedom in the United States,” he added. “My caution would be, if we start removing those books, we could start an avalanche of everyone questioning anything that they disagree with. And we get into some censorship issues that would be really outside the bounds of what our country is about.”
A county commissioner, Anthony Allen, disagreed. “When we try to segregate books that are so explicit that we want them segregated, they should not be in the library,” he told the sheriff. “Can you address that?”
“That’s a fair argument,” the sheriff replied. But, he said, “what is explicit is subjective,” and “it is not government’s call to decide.”
Afterward, the library board moved the two books that offended the sheriff behind the circulation desk, dismaying Webb as well as conservatives who wanted the books out of the library entirely. In a recent interview, Webb said the library system still receives several challenges a month, but most are turned away by a library review committee. The library system has also fended off challenges to its acquisition plans, budget and independence.
“So far, we’re doing OK,” and the library has more supporters than detractors, Webb said.
The battle blew up, she noted, several months after she came out as a lesbian. She sometimes wonders: Was it about books or people?
“I try to tell myself that people are afraid of change,” she said. “Because part of me is afraid it’s hate, and that is the part of me that wants to leave here.”

A Two-Year Battle Over a Book

The controversy in Pella, Iowa, began in the summer of 2021 when a youth identifying as male arrived at the aquatic center in trunks and a small covering over his torso, described as a chest binder by some and Band-Aids by others. A rumor spread that the teen was swimming topless around children, stirring local alarm and angry posts to a Facebook page.
Two women stunned by the vitriol stepped in.
Anne Petrie, a retired music professor at Central College in Pella, and her neighbor Anne McCullough Kelly, a local mental health counselor, formed a Facebook group called “Coalition for an Inclusive Pella” as a countermessage. The two women were heavily outnumbered at City Council meetings, including one in which Michael Shover, the pastor of Christ the Redeemer Church in Pella, said that “the corrupting effects of sexual immorality are now descending upon our town.”
The fracas spawned a new group, Protect My Innocence, which in late 2021 began objecting to about 100 books from the municipal public library that it said contained pornographic and sexually explicit content, including “Gender Queer.” In Pella, the book is shelved in the library’s adult section.
In 2022, the library board denied Protect My Innocence’s request to remove “Gender Queer” from the adult section and make it available only if patrons asked for it. The group complained to the City Council, then turned to collecting signatures for a 2023 ballot referendum to place the library under the control of the City Council. That prompted Petrie and McCullough Kelly to create Vote NO to Save Our Library, a political action committee, with the help of EveryLibrary, a national advocacy group that fights censorship.
Heading into the Nov. 7 election, the competing groups published dueling opinion columns in local papers. Each side accused the other of pursuing a political agenda and of influence by outside interests. Vote NO spent several thousand dollars on yard signs, direct mail, and online and newspaper advertisements. It drew plenty of insults on social media; “my favorite was ‘Satanist, pervert, peddler of porn,'” McCullough Kelly said. Protect My Innocence urged residents to “vote for the virtuous.”
On Nov. 7, the vote to strip the Pella Public Library of its independence was 1,954 in favor, and 2,041 against. Just 87 voters defeated the resolution, ending a two-year battle over a book.
“Would I have liked the margin to be a little bigger? Yeah,” Petrie said. “But I was really, really gratified that the people of Pella said, ‘No, we don’t need this.'”

‘I Just Want Them to Get Through High School’

For her work on behalf of the Rainbow Squad, last March, Neujahr won the American Library Association’s Lemony Snicket Prize for Noble Librarians Faced with Adversity. The prize included a trip to Chicago to receive a $10,000 prize from Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket, author of the popular “A Series of Unfortunate Events” children’s books.
The award, publicized in the local media, made Neujahr a target. The Idaho Tribune, an outlet that describes itself as “conservative journalism that supports and defends the Christian values that Idaho loves and cherishes,” called the prize a “groomer award.”
Personal contacts for Neujahr’s family members appeared on websites attacking her. One online commenter threatened “to gut me like a fish,” she recalled. She offered to buy a security system for her in-laws.
In May, after two religious conservatives who had sought to remove books from the libraries won seats on the library board, its members began overhauling the library’s policies on collections. A draft, viewed by The New York Times, seeks to ban materials containing “any description, exhibition, presentation or representation, in whatever form, of nudity, sexual conduct, sexual excitement or sadomasochistic abuse,” including “buttocks with less than a fully opaque covering.” The language echoes the BookLooks rating system.
In January, the new library chair, Rachelle Ottosen, traveled to Boise to testify in favor of a proposed state bill that would empower parents to collect $250 in damages from a school or public library if their child gains access to materials “harmful to minors.” But more people testified against the bill, and a previous version of it was vetoed by the governor last year. Ottosen declined to be interviewed or to answer emailed questions.
Neujahr left the Community Library Network in Idaho in autumn and now leads youth services for the library system in Spokane, Washington, a half-hour drive away. The job is a promotion, but she acknowledges her disappointment with Ottosen, who made clear that the Rainbow Squad was no longer welcome at the library. She still runs the group, but it now meets at Calvary Lutheran Church in Post Falls. The congregation invited the teens to meet there and has given them snacks and art supplies.
“This is a rough time for any teenager to grow up and experience life, no matter what their identity is,” Neujahr said. “I just want them to get through high school and know that things will be better.
“Once they can vote, they can make a difference,” she added. “I’m excited to see that kind of world.”

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