Empowered in the Fight for Intellectual Freedom | SLJ Summit 2023

Panelists shared strategies, resources, and tips for coalition building for the fight against censorship at the SLJ Summit: A Vision for the Future.

Censorship attempts and the challenges and personal attacks that come with them are inevitable topics of discussion when librarians gather these days. Such was the case at the SLJ Summit: A Vision for the Future, held Dec 1-3 in Atlanta.

To further inform librarians and offer ways for them to be prepared and proactive in this battle, the weekend of Summit programming began with a panel conversation, "Empowered in the Fight For Intellectual Freedom."

From left: Kara Yorio, SLJ senior news editor;
John Chrastka, executive director EveryLibrary;
Kasey Meehan, PEN America Freedom to Read Project director;
Michelle Jarrett, president of Florida Association for Supervisors of Media,
and Latresha Jackson, member of Forsyth Coalition for Education.

Panelists John Chrastka, executive director of EveryLibrary; Kasey Meehan, director of PEN America's Freedom to Read Project; Michelle Jarrett, president of Florida Association for Supervisors of Media; and Latresha Jackson, parent and member of the grassroots advocacy organization Forsyth (GA) Coalition for Education shared their strategies and resources to take on censors and successfully defend access to books and other materials.

The panel also discussed how to create an effective coalition.

“There are four roles that a coalition has to play,” said Chrastka, who has created the Four Dogs of Book Ban Advocacy to make it easier to remember.

The four roles, he explained, are as follows:

Watch dog: “They tend to be people who are a little more immune from political pressure: a lot of retirees, but also organizations—whether it’s arts, culture, business— different groups that care about different kids who have different needs.” Those attempting to censor books and materials are watchdogs, according to Chrastka. They have a worldview and are acting to create schools and libraries that reflect it. Those fighting for intellectual freedom need watchdogs as well, to articulate how their worldview and work toward institutions that reflect it.

Guard dog: “If you’re inside the fence, the guard dog is slobbery and nice, let’s you pet it, kind of like an old hound dog. If you're outside the fence trying to get in, they will go after you. We need more guard dogs.” These people don’t need to know about education or literature or curriculum. They show up at board meetings and stay in the fight “in that enduring, ongoing, exhausting way.”

Bird dog: “The bird dog says, ‘You go here, and you do this.’” Bird dogs, Chrastka further explained, are people who care a limited amount but will act on that—for example, going to the school board and either supporting their positive decisions or holding them accountable for others.

Guide dog: “The guide dog is a role that we are privileged to play, as an organization that comes in with some support, knowledge, and experience.” In addition to EveryLibrary, Chrastka said other guide dogs include state library associations, media organizations, and PEN America. He added that there are individuals in local communities who want to be in that role behind the scenes.

“The key element is that you need to give them permission to be part of the watchdog group, the guard dog, or the bird dog group, or the guide dog group,” said Chrastka. “Good people will sit it out if they think their actions are going to screw it up more than it’s already screwed up. The thing they need to hear from us is permission to act: ‘I know where your heart is. I know where your head is and where your gut is. Please follow your moral compass. We're all going in the same direction.’”

Coalitions in action

In Florida, Jarrett said retired librarians have been helpful allies. They carry valuable institutional knowledge and can attend meetings and speak out without fear of professional consequences. So many teachers and librarians in Florida are concerned for their jobs, but people and organizations are stepping up to support them.

“It goes back to that coalition building,” said Jarrett. “We have a wonderful relationship with the Florida Freedom to Read Project. I'll give you an example…I had an ‘A-ha!’ moment where I thought, wait a minute, there are things we are required to teach in our state standards, and these are the books that are getting challenged. We're required to teach sex trafficking, but you want me to remove Sold [from] my library. We're required to teach about sexual consent and date rape, but you want me to remove Speak from my library. So, I was just having that conversation with Stephana [Ferrell] at Florida Freedom to Read Project. Within two days, she had gone through every health standard, from kindergarten to 12th grade, and tied it into the books that have been challenged.”

Jackson pressed upon educators to talk to parents, find those who are on their side, encourage them to organize to help, and tip them off to what's happening in schools. 

“Reach out to those parents that you know support your work and ask them to join the fight,” Jackson said. “Find that help where it is. We know you guys got a tough job. … We want to support our teachers. We know people are starting to self-censor. We know teachers are scared. Unfortunately, in our county, teachers don't really have that backup, they don't know if the superintendent is going to stand by them. So, they're really scared. And I understand. People got jobs; you got bills to pay. So, look out for those for those grown-ups, those guardians, those parents, whomever that you see, that are allies, and call them in when you need assistance.”

Chrastka and Meehan also stressed the need to reach out to their organizations with information, and the ability to remain anonymous and behind-the-scenes. In a later breakout session, Chrastka said all he needs from anyone providing a strategic leak is the tip and permission to work on their behalf. He also impressed upon everyone to stop using their work email, or even a private email over work Wi-Fi, for any of these communications.

PEN America can help

While most people think of PEN America as the organization to go to when you are ready to sue or have hundreds of books taken off the shelf, Meehan told attendees that they didn't need an official challenge or huge issue to contact PEN.

“We'll take one case,” said Meehan. “Give us a book, we're ready to defend it.”

PEN helps individual librarians along with its larger national work. PEN can provide talking points and strategies for a response, offer technical assistance, or a communications strategy—or take on that communication for you.

“If you don't have a voice that you feel comfortable applying in different ways, we do, we can, and we want to,” she said. “We have a team up here [on the panel], and there are so many others, ready to your voice or to elevate your voices.”

Author Image
Kara Yorio

Kara Yorio (kyorio@mediasourceinc.com, @karayorio) is senior news editor at School Library Journal.

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