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New Wisconsin bill targets school librarians for books that some parents consider obscene

Terri Lesley had no idea what was coming when she hung up with the Campbell County commissioner in June 2021, except that a group of people wanted to discuss the library.

The request wasn’t so unusual. Lesley, at that time, served as the executive director of Campbell County Public Library System in Gillette, Wyoming, a position she’d held for more than a decade in a town she’s lived in most of her life.

At the next public meeting, Lesley walked in cold to an awaiting hornet’s nest. A group of county residents aimed their vitriol at nearly 30 pro-sex education and pro-LGBTQ+ books they wanted gone from the library shelves — fast. That, Lesley explained at the July 2021 meeting, wouldn’t be possible. Residents could challenge books at any time, but those requests then enter a process. Librarians read the book, evaluate the complaint and determine whether the book violates the collection development policy.

“They resented having to go through these actions. They just wanted it done,” Lesley said. “And, in my opinion, they thought the better way was to go on the attack mode.”

Nevertheless, they went through the process, and the books were found not in violation. Lesley was blamed. Smear campaigns ensued; Lesley and other librarians endured threats and harassment. One family even reported Lesley to the Campbell County Sheriff’s Office, demanding her arrest alleging she was dispensing what they considered child pornography.

Lesley would come to understand her saga was part of a national strategy orchestrated by an anti-LGBTQ+ organization called MassResistance. Its mission, “to confront assaults on the traditional family, school children, and the moral foundation of society,” also meant ousting librarians who stood in its way.

Two years later, that’s exactly what happened. Lesley was fired on July 28, 2023.

More than 1,000 miles away, a new bill introduced in the Wisconsin Legislature would open school librarians to prosecution for purchasing library books considered “obscene.” It’s a bill that’s been replicated across the United States, according to Every Library, which is tracking legislation concerning libraries. Wisconsin is one of 13 states with bills that could potentially criminalize librarians for distributing “harmful materials” to minors.

In December, USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin spoke with six education experts from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, who expressed concerns about the implications of such a bill, from how it would impact the mental health of young people to the fractures it risked carving between educators and parents.

“I am really, really tired of anti-democratic extremists pretending they are protecting our kids when they fearmonger in the name of ‘parental rights,'” wrote state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jill Underly in an op-ed at the Wisconsin State Journal on Dec. 19. “I am sickened to hear reports of harassment and threats made against school and library staff.”

What would this bill mean for school librarians?

Already, six states, including Texas, Tennessee and North Dakota, have enacted legislation that removes protections for school librarians who purchase books deemed “obscene” by area library boards. It’s a move that many library advocates and educators say flies in the face not only of First Amendment rights, but the educators’ trainings. Part of that training is the ability to discern age-appropriate materials and communicate new ideas, perspectives and history through a lens of learning.

At a Dec. 5, 2023 Assembly Committee on Education public hearing, co-authors state Sen. Andre Jacque, R-De Pere, and state Rep. Scott Allen, R-Waukesha, explained the bill would allow educators to be prosecuted for giving obscene materials to minors. Allen said the intent is to “hold educators to the same level as other Wisconsinites.” Prosecution can only take place if both the district attorney and the attorney general sign off on criminal proceedings.

Wisconsin’s definition of “obscene” is consistent with the Miller Test, the legal test used to determine whether First Amendment expressions are “obscene,” based on a 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision. That definition, which Allen shared at the December hearing, says that a writing, picture, film or other recording is considered obscene if the average person, applying community standards, would find that it “appeals to the prurient interest if taken as a whole,” if the sexual content is obviously offensive, and if the material lacks serious literary, artistic, political, education, or scientific value, if taken as a whole.

Allen, in his testimony, objected to the idea that the bill is about banning books or is part of some culture war. It’s about providing accountability, he said. Jacque concurred, and said his mother, a retired educator, also expressed concern about today’s reading materials. It’s about ensuring that when parents send their children to school, they’re sending them to a safe space, Jacque said.

"Sissy: A Coming-of-Gender Story" by Jacob Tobia is one of the many LGBTQ+ books a group of people want to see banned from Wisconsin school libraries.

Some of the books presented at the public hearing included “The Infinite Moment of Us” by Lauren Myracle, “Fun Home” by Alison Bechdel and “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood. The pages of the books up for scrutiny were auto-flagged by a website called, created by a group of concerned parents, which scans texts for sexually explicit words and feeds back the number of times those words appear in the book.

Among educators applauding the bill were Waukesha school board president Kelly Piacsek and Mukwonago Area School District Superintendent Joe Koch. Koch, who described the thin line of what is acceptable literature in K-12 schools, wants to see a clearly understood definition of what constitutes obscene material in order for counties to be consistent.

Educators argue that everything the bill attempts to accomplish already exists. The U.S. Supreme Court has already weighed in on what is considered obscene — the Miller Test — a definition Wisconsin has adopted. Ben Miller, director of library services at the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, described the policies and procedures at the local level already in place at most libraries to determine how a book is selected, how it’s weeded, how it leaves the library and how it’s challenged.

Finally, if a teacher or libarian actually disseminates something obscene, they already can be prosecuted for it.

“Libraries invite civil discourse into the books on the shelves and where they are in the library. That’s already a right that people have,” Miller said.

Even if it is decided that a challenged book abides by the collections’ policies and remains on the shelf, a parent can still have a conversation with their school librarian to make sure a child isn’t reading certain materials, said Monica Treptow, school library media consultant at Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.

The bill, Treptow said, unnecessarily pits parents against librarians. After all, school librarians are educators, she said, and educators want to have relationships with parents. But it’s also important to not limit choice in the larger school body.

“We want to encourage parents to be involved in what their kids are reading. It’s not about keeping secrets,” Treptow said. “We can work together to make sure that that child is not reading certain materials. But every single parent has that same choice. And these people want to take that choice away from others, and that’s where the problems ensue.”

When USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin reached out to Wisconsin MassResistance for comment on why it’s trying to advance these bills, founding member Karen Mahoney declined.

Surveys show LGBTQ+ students see libraries as safe spaces

In 2022, Human Rights Campaign and the University of Connecticut surveyed nearly 13,000 LGBTQ+ youths across the U.S. on their mental well-being, school and home experiences, health, and more.

What they found is that nearly half of all LGBTQ+ youth, and more than half of transgender and genderqueer youth, said they felt unsafe in at least one school setting. Yet, nine in 10 LGBTQ+ youth said they usually or always felt safe in their school libraries. Treptow believes that sense of safety and belonging has everything to do with choice, empathy and curiosity.

“One of the features of the school library that is sort of absent from the other areas of school is that we have the breadth of a collection that allows for (empathy), because none of the books are required reading,” Treptow said. “It’s all about voice. It’s all about choice in the library.”

Many books about LGBTQ+ sexuality and identity are being banned in droves. A new bill in Wisconsin could prosecute school librarians for purchasing books some groups deem obscene.

When she taught eighth grade, Abigail Swetz, communications director for DPI, noticed a pattern as she took her students to the library on a regular basis. One of her students had recently transitioned socially — meaning, they changed their pronouns, clothing, hairstyles, names and more, in alignment to their gender identity. A friend asked the librarian about a book they could read featuring a trans character.

“They were just confused. They had asked for this book so they could know their friend a little bit better,” Swetz said.

By the end of the week, multiple students asked to read the book, including the trans student, which got them communicating more. It happened because a librarian gave the student a book that generated discussion about LGBTQ+ understanding and empathy, Swetz said.

Now, Swetz wonders whether this “really beautiful thing” could happen if some of these bills are signed into law.

“The thing that worries me the most is when people argue against these identities and explorations of ideas, it makes it seem like empathy is seen as an agenda, and that is a very dangerous road to go down,” Swetz said. “The language we use is heard by our children and the people we’re using it with, even if we’re not talking directly to, for example, an LGBTQ+ student. They’re hearing what we’re saying about them.”

Just one in five LGBTQ+ students said they had access to LGBTQ+ inclusive sex education and fewer than one in seven have ever been taught about LGBTQ+ history. Instead, a majority of LGBTQ+ youth, more than eight in 10, are turning to the internet to fill these educational gaps.

That’s a problem, said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, the director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, who believes young people should be able to go to the library to find accurate answers to their questions. And that’s especially true for older teenagers on the verge of college, entering the military or starting careers.

“Adolescents don’t automatically become adults on their 18th birthdays. They grow up, and part of that process is the ability to explore the world on their own,” Caldwell-Stone said. “Librarians can be very important in guiding young people to curated content that is accurate.”

It doesn’t make sense, Caldwell-Stone argued, that adults appear not to have a problem handing their children phones with internet capabilities, but draw the line at being able to access certain books at the library.

“Given all that’s out there, information (found on the internet) can be true or untrue, malign or not malign,” Caldwell-Stone said, “but we discourage them from using a curated collection developed by a professional who’s been trained especially to make sure that the collection serves the information needs of the audience they’re serving.”

There’s a copycat nature to the books being questioned

PEN America, a nonprofit that defends writers, artists, and journalists and protects free expression worldwide, has tracked 5,894 instances of school book bans in the United States over the last two years. All told, 2,598 authors, illustrators and translators have been impacted by book bans over the 2021-22 and 2022-23 school years, including Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Eric Carle, Toni Morrison and even a graphic novel adaptation of Anne Frank’s diary.

For Caldwell-Stone, banning library books goes against the very basic principle of libraries. The library is a locus for voluntary reading, one that is community-based and -funded. It’s also a costly process.

Elkhorn Area School District is one district that got national attention when it temporarily removed 444 books from its middle and high school libraries. The majority of the books challenged were reviewed, approved for continued use and returned to circulation, which required time and resources to handle quickly.

The copycat nature of the books being questioned raises red flags for Iris Halpern, a Colorado-based civil rights attorney currently representing multiple librarians, including Lesley, across the United States.

“These censorship advocates have never really read the books all the way through. They’ve been trained by these template playbooks to turn to the one page where there might be something racially or sexually controversial,” Halpern said. “For example, they always flag Toni Morrison’s ‘The Bluest Eye’ because there’s incest in it. Yes, that’s not a pretty picture of the world, but it’s a very real problem and experience, and it isn’t pornography.”

Halpern emphasized how crucial it is for society to “grapple with and learn from difficult and complex themes and subjects” through literature. And Morrison’s work does a tremendous service to these conversations.

Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993. Judges described her as someone “who, in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality.”

The Wisconsin bill is already having a chilling effect on school librarians across the state, said Treptow, at a time when library staffing is already waning. Based on a report released in January 2023, one in every three teachers, which includes librarians, will leave the field in five years.

“What we’re seeing is that, as bills like this get enacted or threatened, we see library media specialists stopping the purchase of books, which isn’t going to help anyone,” Treptow said. “There’s a fear going on, a self-censorship.”

And, as Miller points out, librarians aren’t in it for the money. Using dollar amounts adjusted to 2021, the median salary for teachers fell from more than $62,000 in 2011 to $56,000 in 2021, the report said.

Lesley, from Gillette, Wyoming, misses her job. She fell in love with books early in life and then, her former career in public relations landed her a job in the library with which she was so familiar. She believed in her library’s mantra, “We serve everyone in the community — not the select few.”

Her whole life is in the community — her three children, her husband, a dog named Mr. Earl. She hasn’t made a decision about her future yet, but she’s painfully aware that getting a different library job would mean moving and she isn’t ready to do that.

That doesn’t mean she has regrets.

“I’m a strong believer in the First Amendment, and I can’t abide bullies — I’ve always been like that,” Lesley said. “So when I see this group trying to pick on a marginalized part of our community, I felt like somebody has to fight for them. Somebody has to stand up because what they’re doing is wrong. It might as well be me.”

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