Ludlow Book Ban Attempt Spurs Town’s Legislators to Protect Public Libraries…
UPDATED 7/12/23 9:39AM: To include a statement from the Mass Library Association and to include comments from Senator Cyr on his bill to limit school book bans.
Not even a month ago, the Ludlow School Committee faced a controversial proposal to remove several titles from school libraries. Ultimately, it failed without a vote last month. Still, the episode cast an unfavorable light on the ex-mill town and suburb northeast of Springfield. On Monday, Ludlow’s legislators introduced bills to blunt the national book-banning movement before it takes root in the commonwealth.
Ludlow Senator Jake Oliveira and Belchertown Rep Aaron Saunders, both products of Ludlow public schools, filed legislation in their respective chambers to protect public libraries from attempts to ban books. The bill does not directly affect school libraries. Yet, the sponsors say their hometown’s experience spurred them to act. Moreover, it may complement bills that addresses school libraries more directly.
“Let’s be clear. This isn’t an attempt to suppress ‘content;’” Oliveira, a Democrat, said in a statement announcing the bill. “This is an attempt to suppress freedom of thought, freedom of expression, diversity, and marginalized communities that the proponents of this policy can’t accept.”
Saunders, whose children attend Belchertown public schools, noted that procedures for parents to decide what their kids can access already exist. But the proposal in Ludlow represented something else, against which Massachusetts cannot assume it is inoculated.
“We can stay a little bit ahead of the curve for whatever that next thing may be that gets copied-and pasted-our way,” Saunders said. He was referring to an admission from the sponsor of the unsuccessful Ludlow proposal that he had copied a policy from a Bucks County, Pennsylvania school district he found via Google.
“We see the writing on the wall in other states where there have been these efforts to censor in a very specific way,” the Belchertown Democrat said.
Oliveira’s statement said 2,571 books have faced censorship, according to stats from the American Library Association (ALA). The targets are usually books by or about communities of color and/or people identifying as LGBTQ+.
The bill would direct the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners (MBLC), the state agency that oversees public libraries in the commonwealth, to adopt national stocking and lending standards. Specifically, the bill references the ALA’s recommendations, including its Library Bill of Rights. The document goes back nearly 85 years.
The bill would also empower the MBLC to limit funds to local libraries that do not follow these standards and support libraries facing challenges to their collections. It was filed as emergency legislation because the official bill filing deadline was at the beginning of the year.
The Massachusetts Library Association signaled support for the efforts to block bans.
“The Massachusetts Library Association appreciates lawmakers’ efforts to protect readers’ freedoms and strengthen libraries in the Commonwealth. We affirm the Library Bill of Rights as referenced in the proposed legislation,” MLA President Michelle Filleul said in a statement.
Truro Senator Julian Cyr has introduced legislation that would address school libraries. His bill would establish standards for removal of books, subject to a School Committee vote. Students or parents could challenge removals in court. Written in concert with the ACLU, MassEquality and state library groups, it would adopt the ALA’s Library Bill of Rights. Among the cosponsors is Northampton Senator Jo Comerford.
“All these bills complement one another,” Senator Cyr said in an interview Tuesday. “I’m really grateful to Senator Oliveira in taking the lead in protecting free expression in our libraires.” He and Oliveira have had multiple discussions about their respective bills.
Book banning is not new in the United States. The recent wave began by targeting the transgender community, especially youth. Capitalizing on unrelated, if more justified anger about COVID-era school closures, social conservatives used victories in school board races to pull books with tame or even tangential references to sexuality and race. Statewide policies have followed, especially in GOP-controlled states.
Cyr said there has not been any specific push to ban books in his district, which covers Cape Cod and the Islands. But both he and Provincetown Rep Sarah Peake, the region’s legislative dean, identify as part of the LGBTQ community. A town school committee or library trustees contemplating a ban on books by or about LGBTQ persons would almost certainly come to their attention.
Still, there has been chatter in Massachusetts. Cyr was moved to propose his bill after meeting with a colleague from the Illinois Senate during a mental health conference. The Land of Lincoln had just adopted a similar ban on book bans in its budget.
“Our bill requires that school library materials are selected on school librarians’ professional training and not personal political views,” Cyr said.
What happened in Ludlow rocked the town and attracted state and regional media attention. While Ludlow has been sliding in an increasingly conservative direction, many, if hardly all town Republicans are not rightwing.
That ostensibly changed when Joao Dias joined the School Committee. He sponsored the policy that would have removed books entirely from library shelves. Proponents denied queer communities were the target. However, a state GOP member with a history of homophobic statements was among the supporters. She had urged stocking two anti-LGBTQ books on school shelves.
Masslive reported that the idea has been gestated for some four years, according to another backer, Bella Soares. Throughout May and June this year, it prompted sharp opposition from the community and the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. (The ACLU also opposed the Pennsylvania proposal). The imbroglio may have even influenced a School Committee election in Longmeadow.
When the time came for a vote on June 13, only Dias motioned to move forward. School Committee member Roland Saloio, who had spoken in favor of the policy, did not offer a second. Given the ardent opposition of the other three School Committee members, the item died.
“I’m proud that a majority of the School Committee stood up and did the right thing,” Saunders said. “Those three members represent the vast majority of folks in Ludlow.”
In his statement, Oliveira observed that he had made libraries a focus on his maiden speech in the Senate and sought funding for them in the budget.
“We’re sending a message that we understand the value public libraries have on their communities and that we value diversity, equity, and inclusion,” he said.
As to why their bill focuses on public libraries versus school libraries, Saunders said Cyr’s bill plays that role. He also noted that local control of schools itself has deep roots in Massachusetts. Both he and Oliveira are veterans of Ludlow town government. Before moving to Belchertown, Saunders had been a Select Board member. Oliveira served 12 years on the School Committee.
However, local volunteers overseeing libraries do face angry backlashes. They could use backup from the state.
Certainly, conditions vary from community to community. In Springfield, Library Commission chair Stephen Cary said he knows other communities have faced tempestuous demands to ban books. Thus far, he and his colleagues have not encountered such a storm at Commission meetings.
“We are very lucky that are professional librarians are allowed to do the work they do so well in choosing new pieces of literary, films and videos, music and so many other materials as well as maintained older pieces of work,” he told WMP&I.
However, Springfield Library commissioners enjoy some insulation as appointees of the mayor. In other communities, such as Ludlow, library commissioners or trustees face voters. Running for office, they could face additional insults, harassment or intimidation.
“We talk about the policy, in this case with books, but when you look at the type of hate and the type of vitriol that these folks use to advance their agenda, it’s deeply personal stuff,” he said. “This is one step toward helping those folks from having been put through that process as well,” he said.
In his statement, noting the copycat nature of the Ludlow policy, Oliveira noted how these efforts mirror darker moments in history.
“Whom do we see if we look through the lens of history or the current climate of widespread book bans? Places like the Soviet Union and Communist China. Is that who we want to be associated with regarding policy?” he said.
Indeed, in Ludlow, Saunders observed, democracy prevailed as residents rallied.
Critics have charged that opponents of these measures want no limits. However, that is not case. Many districts have rules like those in Cyr’s bill. Parents retain a say in what their child can access without imposing their will on everybody else’s children.
“This is not who we are,” Cyr said. “Many of us feel very strongly to make sure it doesn’t happen again in Massachusetts.”
It was important for the commonwealth to be a beacon, given its history on LGBTQ equality. However, the Cape Cod Senator warned, Massachusetts needs “to look closer to home and we can’t rest on our laurels.”
Public libraries especially cannot become vehicles for those few—with dubious motives—to restrict access for the broader public such institutions serve. That was why Oliveira and Saunders filed the bill.
“The unfortunate part is that among that minority that choose to pursue this type of extremism, they’re not quitting any time soon,” Saunders said. “We have to be sure our public policy values freedom at every turn.”