It’s not often that school librarians gravitate toward the gridiron for advice, but when it comes to combating censorship, iconic Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi had the perfect game plan: “Preparedness is the ultimate confidence builder.”
From January-September 2019, I helped block an attempt to ban Alison Bechdel’s award-winning memoir Fun Home in our high school district. Although the circumstances of that challenge were unusual, lessons learned from prior book challenges in my high school over the preceding 14 years (Looking for Alaska, Inexcusable, Where the Heart Is, Me Talk Pretty One Day) formed the basis for a playbook that prepared me to quickly mobilize without panic:
Know your policies. Become familiar with your district’s selection and challenge policies. In the Fun Home case, the relevant policies were those covering Resource Materials and Public Complaints and Grievances. Bookmark the links to your district’s online policies, and keep printed copies in a Censorship folder for your files. You may need to educate an administrator or parent about the policies in the moment that the challenge arises, and having those documents within reach can enable you to lead the discussion rather than simply respond to it.
If your district lacks clear policies, consult the ALA’s Selection & Reconsideration Policy Toolkit for guidance.
And while you’re compiling policy documentation, be sure to add to your bookmarks and Censorship file copies of these resources, which underscore the civil liberties implications of school library censorship:
- First Amendment of the United States Constitution
- ALA Library Bill of Rights
- National Council of Teachers of English Students’ Right to Read
- National Coalition Against Censorship’s First Amendment in Schools Resource Guide
Get it in writing. Lodging complaints about a book is as easy as flagging a passage and picking up the phone. Initiating a thorough and well-reasoned challenge, on the other hand, takes work. In past cases, after parents or administrators complained, I asked them to complete a detailed materials-reconsideration form, which stopped each challenge in its tracks. When potential censors realized that they would have to read the book in its entirety, prepare a written complaint, and stand behind that complaint as it worked its way through a formal reconsideration process, they backed off. Keep copies of that reconsideration form in your Censorship folder. If your district doesn’t have a reconsideration form, the ALA has a model.
Don’t go it alone. With luck, a book challenge that moves beyond an initial complaint will be a once-in-a-career situation. As a result, few of us are experts at fending off censorship. Fortunately, there are resources and support available in the library and civil liberties communities. During the Fun Home challenge, I immediately contacted ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, followed shortly thereafter by the National Council of Teachers of English and the National Coalition Against Censorship. These three groups worked together to coordinate a response and enlisted a broad coalition of organizations to oppose restriction of the book. Their combined fire power helped restore Fun Home to the shelves.
All three organizations offer online censorship reporting forms, making it easy to ask for help. However, if you are concerned about your situation being made public, request discretion when you make your report.
Just as you would post phone numbers for police, fire department, or poison control on your refrigerator at home, keep a list of these “censorship first-responders” in your Censorship folder.
- ALA Office of Intellectual Freedom
- NCTE Intellectual Freedom Center
- Your state and county library associations
Embrace your power. A book challenge is scary, and it’s natural to feel overwhelmed or powerless. Over the nine months of the Fun Home challenge, I shed many tears, endured sleepless nights, and literally shook from fear. In those low moments, I took a deep breath, found my “inner coach,” and gave myself a pep talk on all the power within my grasp:
- Union: There’s strength in numbers. Let your union know what’s happening. They can advise you of your rights and connect you with legal resources if necessary.
- Tenure: In the worst cases, censors may make threats about your employment status. However, tenure protections make such threats difficult to fulfill. If a challenge arises before you’ve earned tenure, reach out to tenured colleagues or friendly community members, who can take center stage while you provide direction from behind the scenes.
- Research skills: This is every librarian’s super power! Use your research skills to compile the information for defending the book or forming a coalition of community supporters. Look for book reviews, ownership at comparable institutions, prior challenges to the book, case law, and related issues, legislation, or affinity groups.
- Library profession: As librarians, we are members of a strong, wise, and generous professional community that supports colleagues with advice and advocacy. Contact your local, state, and national library organizations.
- First Amendment: The U.S. Constitution is the wind beneath your wings. When the going gets tough, remember that you are fighting for your students’ right to read … a right the founding fathers established in the First Amendment, which promises freedom of expression and inquiry.
Just as football teams suit up before hitting the field, you’ll need some equipment, too. My colleague Leslie Edwards and I compiled all of these tips — and more — in an online toolkit. When you’re suddenly thrown into the censorship game, with this playbook you’ll be prepared to take on — and tackle — the threat with confidence.