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Conservative Christian groups are targeting Louisiana libraries

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Librarians, public servants, masters of the Dewey Decimal System and now the latest villains in America's culture wars. Conservative Christian activists are demanding the removal of an expanding list of books, and free speech defenders are crying censorship. NPR's John Burnett has this story.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: The battle inside America's libraries is playing out at the monthly meetings of the Lafayette, La., Library Board of Control.

(SOUNDBITE OF GAVEL)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: We'll begin.

BURNETT: At the August meeting, after reports on the bookmobile, library hours and plans for a new branch, the lectern is open for public comments.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Everything that has happened in the past 18 months with this board and to the library has been basically a dystopian nightmare.

BURNETT: Since conservatives took over the Lafayette Library Board last year, the controversies have come one after the other. The library board rejected a grant to fund a program about voting rights, saying it was too left wing. They cancelled Drag Queen Story Time. A display about Pride Month was banned. Now the libraries forbid displays about any group, even Cajuns. And when a popular librarian, Cara Chance, disobeyed that order and put up a display that included queer romance, the board tried to get her fired.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Hold up your signs for Cara again. Thank you. We don't support fascism in the Lafayette Public Library.

BURNETT: Lafayette Parish is deeply conservative Trump country, red as a boiled crawfish, so others in the community applaud the board's shift to the right. A man in a tie and blue blazer steps up to the mic.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: I'm a father of four children, young children, and my daughter found a book, a cartoon book that was basically pornographic - encouraged children to, you know, explore themselves in a variety of ways. But it was in the children's section.

BURNETT: Lafayette Parish is by no means unique. Across America, fractious debates over free speech in public and school libraries have turned these hushed realms into combat zones. Traditional values groups are demanding bans or restrictions on books with explicit sex education and books that unflinchingly document queer lifestyles and the Black American experience. The American Library Association, in its unofficial tally, reports that challenges of library books have jumped fourfold from around 400 books in 2017 to nearly 1,600 book challenges last year.

The president of the Lafayette Library Board is Robert Judge, a retired insurance claims adjuster and a devout Catholic. He thinks the library's mission should submit to a traditional notion of family values and community standards.

ROBERT JUDGE: See - this is where we get into the sticky ground is, do we allow a governmental agency, which is - the library is a governmental agency - to supersede parents' rights? And do we protect parents' rights, or we just say, well, that's the stuff that we have, and we put it anywhere, and if your kid stumbles upon it, it's not our problem?

BURNETT: To appease critics, the library moved 1,100 nonfiction books, including graphic sex-ed books, from the young adult section to the adult collections. All of the changes since right-wingers took over the library have infuriated liberal patrons.

JEAN MENARD: We're really upset that the library is being used in this, I guess, I'm going to call it culture wars.

BURNETT: Jean Menard is a home-school mom who started an anti-censorship Facebook group called Supporters of Lafayette Public Libraries.

MENARD: It is not the Board of Control's position to micromanage the library. Librarians need to be able to manage the library. This is a public library. It's for everyone. Whether they don't like the materials or the programs, don't attend. Don't check out the material.

BURNETT: That argument has gone nowhere. Conservative Christians are on a roll, and they want what offends them purged from the stacks. Standing in their way can have severe consequences. Last month, a middle school librarian named Amanda Jones spoke out against censorship at a meeting of the library board where she lives and works in Livingston Parish, not far from Baton Rouge.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AMANDA JONES: The citizens of our parish consist of taxpayers who are white, Black, brown, gay, straight, Christian and non-Christian.

BURNETT: She said people come in all races, genders and sexual orientations, and one segment of the community cannot dictate what the rest of the library patrons may have access to. Amanda Jones' words have weight. She's won several Librarian of the Year awards and is the current president of the Louisiana Association of School Librarians. But she was completely unprepared for what happened.

JONES: And then a few days later, I opened the internet, and there were pictures of me, awful memes, saying I advocate teaching erotica and pornography to 6-year-olds. It gave my school's name. None of that was true. I gave a blanket speech on censorship, and they decided they wanted to make me a target. And it has not stopped.

BURNETT: They is Citizens for a New Louisiana, the same group that's behind the conservative takeover of the Lafayette Library Board. The group has harshly criticized Jones on its Facebook page for defending books they consider obscene and inappropriate for children.

MICHAEL LUNSFORD: We have this page that actually shows intercourse. Then we have things like this that have close-ups of genitalia.

BURNETT: Michael Lunsford is director of Citizens for a New Louisiana, which he calls a government accountability group. In his office in Lafayette, he pulls out one of the books they targeted and opens it to an illustration.

LUNSFORD: We've got a page here on masturbation and how to do it. And, you know, this kind of stuff - this is what parents are for.

BURNETT: But why attack a librarian for a book that's in the library? Is defending a sex-ed book, even a graphic one, really promoting smut?

LUNSFORD: I don't know that we attacked her personally. You know, we asked a question - what type of influence does she have over what our children see in school libraries, as the president of the association?

BURNETT: In the current toxic political climate, Amanda Jones says she has begun to fear for her life.

JONES: So sorry (crying). It's horrible. My anxiety is through the roof. I live in constant fear that some person that they've incited is going to come and get me or get my child or come up to the school where I work and harm a child. And it's been a month of this, and it just won't stop.

BURNETT: Last week, Amanda Jones sued Michael Lunsford, his organization and another individual she says is trolling her. The lawsuit asks for a court order to stop what it calls harassment and defamation. Meanwhile, Citizens for a New Louisiana has announced its intention to target libraries in all 64 parishes in the state.

John Burnett, NPR News, Lafayette, La. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: August 31, 2022 at 12:00 AM EDT
This story incorrectly says that the current Lafayette library board had canceled Drag Queen Story Time. In fact, Drag Queen Story Time was canceled in 2018, before conservatives took over the local library board last year.
As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.
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