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Firing of Colorado librarian who objected to cancellation of programs for youth of color, LGBTQ teens was illegal, state concludes

An investigation by the Colorado Civil Rights Division concluded that a Weld County library district violated state anti-discrimination laws when it fired a librarian in 2021 after she objected to the cancelation of programs she had planned for youth of color and LGBTQ teens.

The division issued determination letters Wednesday to the High Plains Library District, finding it violated state prohibitions on discriminatory firing and retaliation, as well as to three employees, whom the division said violated the law barring the aiding and abetting of discrimination.

The finding is significant as it’s among the first in the country by a state government that concluded censorship targeted at LGBTQ youth or youth of color is a violation of anti-discrimination laws, said Iris Halpern, the attorney representing fired librarian Brooky Parks.

Representatives of the High Plains Library District did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday afternoon.

The determination by the civil rights division paves the way for a mediation process that could end in the library district meeting the state’s requests or trigger further legal action.

“This whole entire crisis around censorship has been manufactured by a small minority of radical individuals who really are hiding discrimination and retaliatory processes behind the rhetoric of something that may sound more palatable to society,” Halpern said. “We’ve seen this over and over, and I hope we all come together and realize all of us are important to American society and deserve to be heard and participate fully in our public sphere, equally.”

In February 2022, Parks — who had worked in the teen department of the Erie Community Library for three years — filed state and federal discrimination complaints alleging she was fired by the Weld County library district in December 2021 after she pushed back on policy changes that leadership had used to instruct Parks to cancel or alter her teen programming.

Shortly before Parks was fired, the High Plains Library District Board of Trustees approved a policy stating library programs “should not be intended to persuade participants to a particular point of view” or be “intentionally inflammatory or polarizing.”

Parks’ supervisors pointed to the policies when telling her to rename the Erie library’s “Read Woke” book club because the word “woke” was polarizing, and to cancel two programs she’d planned — a teen anti-racism workshop and a teen program focused on LGBTQ history.

After Parks pushed back on the renaming and cancellation of the programs, she was issued a written warning for her “negative behavior” and “failure to attend to important details of her job,” according to the civil rights division’s findings.

When Parks submitted a rebuttal to the warning, she was fired, according to the state investigation.

“Based on the surrounding circumstances, the evidence indicates that (High Plains Library District) warned and ultimately discharged (Parks) for pretextual/unsubstantiated reasons and/or for advocating on behalf of youth of color, LGBTQ+ youth, and her programs which serve and/or target marginalized youth,” the state investigation concluded. “The evidence is sufficient to give rise to an inference of unlawful discrimination based on (Parks’) protected class (association to youth of color and LGBTQ+ youth).”

Parks told The Denver Post on Wednesday that she was feeling a mix of emotions — relief, validation and appreciation, and was overwhelmed by the stress of the past year.

In addition to the financial burden of losing her job, Parks said she experienced reputational damage as she tried to find a new job. She has since found a new library position.

“This is not how libraries should be operating, and I know similar things are happening elsewhere and in public schools, too,” Parks said. “They should be held accountable. They should have to be inclusive and support LGBTQ youth and youth of color and not be able to silence these kids. They should be offering services to them.”

Attempts at library censorship — from book banning to cutting programming — have proliferated across the country, led by politically conservative leaders, and largely have focused on books and events about LGBTQ issues and race.

The number of attempts to ban or restrict library resources in schools, universities and public libraries have soared across the United States, according to 2022 data from the American Library Association.

Between Jan. 1 and Aug. 31 of last year, the association documented 681 attempts to ban or restrict library resources with 1,651 unique book titles targeted. In all of 2021, the association reported 729 attempts to censor library resources, targeting 1,597 books, which represented the highest number of attempted book bans since the organization began compiling the information more than 20 years ago.

“What does it mean to have your history or access to resources and voices that can support you and talk to your life experience removed from you in an incredibly public discourse that’s meant to shame and humiliate?” Halpern said. “There is real harm to victims here.”

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