In April 2023, residents in Douglas County, Colorado, a region 45 minutes south of Denver known for pastoral landscapes, state parks, and an annual Renaissance Festival, rallied as conservative activists launched an increasingly common book-banning campaign against the county library. Jessica Fredrickson, a former Douglas County Public Library employee, first found out about the book challenges on Facebook a few days before the library’s Board of Trustees meeting.
Aaron Wood, founder of the conservative Christian Freedom Fathers group, called on his Facebook followers to attend the meeting in a post accusing Douglas County libraries of “perversion.” He then linked to BookLooks, a website with ties to Moms for Liberty and a common tool for people trying to ban books. Wood has since deleted his Facebook page.
Books challenged before the April meeting include All Boys Aren’t Blue, an award-winning memoir by Black queer nonbinary author George M. Johnson. The ABC’s of Gender Identity was challenged for pushing a “demonic narrative” on children and suggested “the Bible” as content to counterbalance or provide additional information on the subject. Another challenge to the award-winning children’s book Prince & Knight claims that it is “physically impossible” for two men to satisfy each other’s romantic feelings.
“I put out a panicked call to action,” Fredrickson told LGBTQ Nation. “I said, ‘I’m gonna be here, and I’m gonna speak in defense of libraries and the freedom to read. Who’s gonna join me?’ People showed up.”
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The incident indicates the rising vitriol against a growing number of texts from Shakespeare to Pulitzer Prize-winning titles. The American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom received reports on 1,269 book challenges in 2022, the highest number since they began collecting data in 2003. “These numbers—and the list of the Top 13 Most Challenged Books of 2022—are evidence of a growing, well-organized, conservative political movement,” wrote Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association’s (ALA) Office of Intellectual Freedom.
Caldwell-Stone’s terrifying observation in the State of America’s Libraries 2023 report felt as ominous as Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. But this isn’t a piece of post-apocalyptic fiction. Book bans and censorship threaten to extinguish LGBTQ+ voices and others from marginalized communities.
“Overwhelmingly, book bans target books on race or racism or featuring characters of color, as well as books with LGBTQ+ characters,” PEN America writes in its report Banned in the USA: The Mounting Pressure to Censor. PEN found that 30 percent of banned books include characters of color or discuss race or racism, and an equal number include LGBTQ+ characters or themes. The two most challenged books last year, Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe and All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson, are both memoirs by queer authors.
Even when book challenges fail, they erode trust in public institutions like schools and libraries.
“There are groups that have some ultimate goals around creating distrust in public institutions, particularly public education, to create a climate where they can make the argument for school vouchers,” Peter Bromberg of the EveryLibrary Institute tells LGBTQ Nation.
A spokeswoman for Moms for Liberty, a driving force behind book ban campaigns, once called for a “mass exodus from the public school system.” The Heritage Foundation, a far-right think tank that promotes “traditional family values” and mobilizes the conservative movement, argues that “It is time for the school choice movement to embrace the culture war,” claiming support for school vouchers could become the majority position if it can convince voters it’s the solution to so-called “culture wars” in public schools.
And while Moms for Liberty and other book-banning champions claim to be grassroots movements, reporting from The Guardian and democracy watchdog True North Research shows deep connections to conservative mega-donors like the Koch brothers and the DeVos family, both of which have a history of pursuing school vouchers.
Whether viewed as localized efforts or a national crisis, book bans and their broader implications for the erosion of free speech and equitable education have swept the country. The data doesn’t lie, though those manipulating the First Amendment have concocted fanciful arguments to eradicate thousands of titles. In the short term, schools and libraries are caught in the crossfire, but irreversible damage to our education system looms in the future.
A Colorado showdown unfolds, one page at a time
At that first Douglas County Library Board of Trustees meeting, public comments were evenly split between those defending the books and others calling for removal. “That should give people hope,” Fredrickson said. “I found out just three days before and put out this call, and an equal number showed up to support the library. Every meeting after that, we outnumbered them.”
“New people showed up every time. Every time,” added Jan Knauer, another former library employee.
Still, Fredrickson says she was worried after the April board of trustees meeting. “I felt chilled. It’s one thing to read about book bans in another state. It’s another thing to hear someone calling for a bonfire to burn LGBTQ books in your own community,” Fredrickson said. She organized library supporters using a structure in a guide from We Need Diverse Books. She also recommended the GLAAD guide for community response in an email to LGBTQ Nation. Knauer soon joined as a second leader, and in May, they co-founded the Douglas County FReadom Defenders, an organization that challenges censorship and seeks to protect intellectual freedoms.
Guides explaining how to oppose book-banning challenges have been created in response to what experts like Caldwell-Stone call an “unprecedented” onslaught of challenges in the United States. In their report Banned in the USA: The Mounting Pressure to Censor, PEN America states that “coordinated and ideologically driven threats, challenges, and legislation” targeting public schools and libraries “have spurred a wave of book bans unlike any in recent memory.”
The American Library Association (ALA) has tracked library censorship for two decades. In addition to monitoring how many challenges are made, it also documents how many individual book titles are targeted—and in the last two years, that number has risen exponentially. In 2021, ALA found over 1,850 book titles challenged. That number climbed to nearly 2,600 in 2022. The increase reflects a new trend: mass book challenges. Before 2020, most challenges targeted just one book. In 2022, 90 percent of challenges named multiple titles, and 40 percent “sought to remove or restrict over 100 books all at once,” Caldwell-Stone wrote.
Amplifying the right to read
Knauer knew of the EveryLibrary Institute well before she began organizing the FReadom Defenders, aware of the organization because of its work to support library funding initiatives. But she started following EveryLibrary more closely after it ran fundraising campaigns to support struggling librarians during the height of COVID-19. In May, she got on the phone with EveryLibrary’s political director, Patrick Sweeney, who helped her create a petition that stated “parents have the right to screen what their own children read,” but “no one parent or government entity” should make those choices for everyone. Knauer also joined a monthly call hosted by EveryLibrary Associate Director Peter Bromberg, which brings together community organizers to discuss challenges and strategies in the fight against book bans.
Founded in 2012, EveryLibrary builds public support for library funding. For the first decade of its existence, EveryLibrary primarily opposed isolated actions from local politicians or state legislatures that would threaten funding for public libraries. That changed in 2021, according to Bromberg.
“We were always working with grassroots groups, but two years ago, we put out calls like, ‘Hey, if there’s censorship in your community, let us know. We’ll work with you.’ And we would train people on how to do grassroots activism and advocacy,” Bromberg told LGBTQ Nation.
It was labor-intensive work, and EveryLibrary needed to streamline the process. In February 2023, it launched FightForTheFirst.org. “Fight For The First has, for the first time, really allowed us to support grassroots groups at scale,” Bromberg said, estimating that EveryLibrary was working with 55 local groups to fight book bans or protect library funding.
One way EveryLibrary supports groups is by helping them build a petition. A petition alone may not change a board member’s mind, but it produces an email list of people organizers can count on to attend meetings and vote for pro-library candidates and policies. That list is the true power since library board meetings rarely draw in large crowds under normal circumstances.
Conservative activists try to drive up engagement using what the PEN America report calls “hyperbolic and misleading rhetoric about “porn in schools” and “sexually explicit,” “harmful,” and “age-inappropriate” materials.” In June, Aaron Wood did just that. In a flier initially reported by the independent editorial book site Book Riot, Wood claimed Douglas County Public Libraries contained “child’s porn.” He challenged at least four books at the Douglas County Public Library and appealed Library Director Bob Pasicznyuk’s decision to keep the titles in the library catalog.
In his challenges to the books Jack of Hearts (and other parts), All Boys Aren’t Blue, and This Book is Gay, Wood claims that “It would be illegal for anyone under the age of 18 to view this material outside of the library.” But Wood failed to fact-check his claim.
In Miller v. California, the Supreme Court said the First Amendment protects most books from censorship, even for minors. The court established a three-part test to determine if the government can control who reads a book. The Miller Test asks three essential questions:
- Does the community believe the book, taken as a whole, is written to turn people on?
- Does the book break any state laws?
- Is the book, taken as a whole, completely devoid of artistic, literary, scientific, or political value?
The answer must be yes to all three questions; otherwise, the government can’t restrict who can read the book. These three books are award-winning titles, meaning they already fail the third test.
The appeal would be heard by the library’s board of trustees in August, two months after Wood of the Freedom Fathers’ inflammatory post accused the library of offering “child’s porn.” Significantly, the board would not vote on whether to keep the books. Instead, it voted on whether or not the library director had followed library policies when he decided to keep them. Fredrickson says she was “cautiously optimistic” in the days leading up to the August board meeting.
“Thanks to our Fight for the First petition, we knew the community overwhelmingly opposed book bans. We knew library policies defended the right to read. What we didn’t know was whether the library trustees would stand by those policies. Lately, governing boards in Douglas County don’t have a great track record when it comes to following policy or law,” she said, referring to a recent lawsuit against a Douglas County school board. “This was the first time an appeal made it all the way to this particular board of library trustees. We really didn’t know what would happen that Wednesday night.”
At the August meeting, public comments overwhelmingly supported keeping the books in the library catalog. “We outnumbered the book banners 31-12 in public comment at the August Board meeting,” Fredrickson said. Ultimately, the board of trustees voted unanimously that the library director had followed library policies, and this iteration of the book ban challenge ended.
Asked if they had any advice for other communities facing book ban challenges, Fredrickson and Knauer agreed that the first step is to reach out to other people. “I want others to know they can take heart,” Fredrickson said. “There are so many more library lovers in the community than there are book banners. There are so many people who love books and libraries and librarians and their teachers.”
The Far Right’s master plan
The work of the Douglas County FReadom Defenders is still ongoing. “During the August board meeting, Wood indicated he would pursue library policies next. It seems like Wood has an ally in trustee Meghann Silverthorn, who accused library staff of aimlessly purchasing materials without a framework at the same meeting,” said Fredrickson. The library board writes policies, meaning it could make changes that permit future book bans.
The FReadom Defenders is also preparing for a fight over book bans in the school board, which Fredrickson and Knauer said has likely already begun. In September, The FReadom Defenders held a school board candidate town hall in conjunction with Castle Rock Pride.
“When we did the town hall, we invited everybody, all the candidates,” Knauer said. “Only three candidates showed up to answer the questions, which were about book banning and LGBTQ+ issues in schools and supporting kids.”
DougCO FReadom Defenders also sent a questionnaire to school board candidates and asked them to sign the American Library Association pledge to oppose book bans. Only three candidates returned the questionnaire and signed the pledge. In a significant win for book lovers, all three won election to the school board, where they can protect LGBTQ+ books and students from similar challenges.
“They just want to discredit everything,” Knauer said of the school board fights nationwide. She and Fredrickson agree, pointing out that this is part of a long history of far-right conservatives eroding trust in public institutions. The Heritage Foundation report, Time for the School Choice Movement to Embrace the Culture War, suggests that conservative mega-donors see value in the book-ban battles, even if they fail, writing, “The school choice movement can gain significantly more supporters by wading into the current cultural battles to promote school choice as a solution.”
Whether or not those making challenges on a local level are even aware of the larger strategic implications of eroding trust in public education and institutions is the next dangerous chapter to unfold.
The American Library Association’s Caldwell-Stone argues there is evidence of a well-organized conservative movement to ban books. Bromberg at EveryLibrary’s goal is clear: Erode trust in public institutions to empower school choice programs going forward. To fight that, the EveryLibrary Institute is working to ensure that communities have access to the organizing tools they need when book challenges come to their schools and libraries.
The Douglas County FReadom Defenders hope library boards in the U.S. will take a more proactive approach to fighting book bans. “My advice for library boards is this: the time to strengthen your policies was yesteryear,” Fredrickson said. “This fight is coming for you, no matter where you are in the country. It is just a matter of sooner or later.”
Explore the concerning trend of book banning, particularly targeting diverse and LGBTQ+-related literature, and its potential impact on society.
Featured photo illustration by Matthew Wexler. Photos by Anya Semenoff/The Denver Post via Getty Images, Shutterstock.