Rita Christensen and Tricia Fenton: Book banning blocks our greatest freedom

It is a librarian’s job to make sure students have the freedom to read.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Four of nine books that have been removed from schools in the Canyons School District and placed under review, Nov. 23, 2021. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe, Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov and Beyond Magenta by Susan Kuklin.

The phone rang. On the other end, Tricia Fenton, president of the Utah Educational Library Media Association, heard the Granite School District library supervisor asking if she would review the book “All Boys Aren’t Blue” for potentially suggestive content.

She was reassured that she wasn’t facing a book challenge, to which she replied, “I’m not worried, that’s why we have policies in place. We refer to the policy and follow that procedure.”

The title reviewed remains in the collection, and other youth have the freedom to read the book. This was a cordial exchange about books and kids, but recent actions over books in Utah’s school libraries haven’t been so diplomatic.

Officials in the Canyons School District recently ordered the removal of nine titles from four Utah high schools without following their own title reconsideration policy after a school board representative received an email complaint. Their policy, passed in 2020, states that challenged titles must remain in the library during the review process. In fact, there is no official book challenge in that district.

Teachers and librarians stand with parents in acknowledging the importance of keeping students safe. Policies and procedures are passed by public boards in an open and inclusive process, providing transparent pathways for parents and citizens to express objections and offer input. Libraries have strong records of listening and taking appropriate actions in a respectful and responsive manner.

Following the rules when library books are questioned protects First Amendment freedoms and safeguards due process. School librarians professionally select resources that enhance classroom curriculum and students’ interests. Strong collections represent diverse viewpoints on all topics, which ensures that students develop critical thinking skills and are prepared for the real world. Removing books indiscriminately without proper review limits access to information and ideas, which jeopardizes student success.

Videos circulating on social media have some parents concerned about the content of school library books. School librarians take the responsibility of helping students identify which books will best align with their interests and needs very seriously. They work as partners with parents and community members to ensure that the needs of all our students are met.

Every day, librarians collaborate with caregivers to help them find suitable books for their child. We honor and respect that it is the parent’s role to help children understand new ideas and viewpoints within the context of their family’s beliefs and value system.

What many are calling for now, however, is the bypassing of legal, open, and transparent processes so that they can impose their personal standards of appropriateness on everyone, in lieu of shared legal and professional standards.

Recently, the Spotsylvania School Board in Virginia voted to remove books due to content without following their own rules. They were advised by legal counsel that their actions were unconstitutional and reversed their decision.

In 2012, Davis School District removed from library shelves the book “In Our Mothers’ House,” which told a story about a family with two mothers. The school district was sued and later settled a case with the ACLU of Utah with directives to return the book to the library shelves and agreed to never remove a book again based on LGBTQ content.

We have faith in our Utah school board members and legislators that they won’t make similar mistakes and unconstitutionally remove books from school libraries, opening themselves and the taxpayers up to costly legal action.

We urge parents, librarians and leaders to engage in community conversations and follow established collection development and reconsideration policies, as well as state and federal laws, to ensure that students in Utah continue to enjoy one of our greatest freedoms — the freedom to read.

Rita Christensen

Rita Christensen is president of the Utah Library Association and works for the Orem Public Library as the head children’s librarian. She has a bachelor’s degree and a master of library and information science degree from Brigham Young University.

Trisha Fenton

Tricia Fenton is president of the Utah Educational Library Media Association and has worked as the library media education technology specialist at Cyprus High School in Granite School District for three years. She has a bachelor’s in elementary education from Brigham Young University and a master of education degree from Southern Utah University.