Librarians turn to civil rights organization to oppose book bans and firings

(David Zalubowski/Associated Press)

Librarians turn to civil rights organization to oppose book bans and firings


November 8, 2023

She refused to ban books, many of them about racism and the experiences of LGBTQ+ people. And before that, Suzette Baker was fired as library director in a rural county in central Texas.

“I’m kind of persona non grata here,” said Baker, who led the library system in Kingsland, Texas, until she refused to remove a prominent display of several books that people had tried to ban over the years.

Now Baker is fighting back. She and two other librarians who were similarly fired have filed workplace discrimination claims with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. And as the culture war to keep certain books away from children and teens puts increasing strain on public and school libraries, their goal is redemption and, where possible, ultimately restoration.

So far, it remains to be seen whether the claims will succeed and set a new precedent in the battle between teachers and librarians across the country who oppose book bans and conservative activists who say some books are unsuitable for young minds.

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The fight has led to a record number of attempts to ban books, with some libraries cutting ties with the American Library Assn., which opposes book bans, and even attempting to prosecute librarians for allowing children to access books that some say it is too explicit.

At least one laid-off librarian has achieved some measure of success.

Brooky Parks, who was fired for championing anti-racism and LGBTQ+ storytelling programs she hosted for teens at the Erie Community Library north of Denver, won a $250,000 settlement in September. The settlement was reached through the Colorado Civil Rights Division and requires her former employer to give librarians more say in decisions about library programs.

Parks’ settlement with the High Plains Library District ended a stressful eight-month period without work, when community donations helped her avoid losing her home. And it will likely resolve Parks’ claim with the EEOC, said her attorney, Iris Halpern, who represents the three librarians.

I just wasn’t going to part with it. It was exactly the right thing to do, said Parks, now a librarian at the University of Denver.

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After her dismissal in 2022, Baker filed an EEOC claim against her employer, the Llano County Library System in Kingsland, Texas. And in September 2023, Terri Lesley, executive director of the Campbell County Public Library System in Gillette, Wyo., filed a claim over her dismissal last summer.

Halpern, along with the Denver firm Rathod Mohamedbhai, likened the wrongful termination claims to legal battles in the civil rights era.

It’s honestly sad that we’ve gotten to this point. But history is an ongoing struggle and we must learn from our past, she said.

The Civil Rights of 1964


The law established the EEOC to enforce laws against workplace discrimination. One legal expert thinks the librarians could prevail on the grounds that under those laws, employees should not be discriminated against because of their interactions with certain classes of people.

In any case, the devil may be in the details when it comes to how the facts emerge and what they can present. But these are certainly actionable claims, says David Lopez, a law professor at Rutgers University and former general counsel of the EEOC.

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An EEOC investigation can take more than a year. The EEOC may then attempt to reach an out-of-court settlement with the employer, file a charge on the employee’s behalf, or issue a letter stating that the employee has grounds to file a charge himself.

The librarians have not yet received a response from the EEOC and are not expected to do so before the end of next year.

“I would like to be optimistic,” Baker said. “I know there are a lot of people in this community who are absolutely supportive of the library being open, free and equal for everyone. And there are a lot of people who aren’t. So it’s a difficult situation.

EEOC spokesman Victor Chen declined to comment on specific filings, adding that we can’t even confirm or deny that we have these complaints.

The county attorney’s offices and other representatives of the government officials who fired Parks, Baker and Lesley did not return phone and email messages requesting comment or declined to comment.

At her library in Texas, Baker displayed several books targeted by recent book bans and a sign that read: We put the lit in literature a reference to the recent book burning by a Tennessee preacher.

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Baker was fired after refusing to take down the exhibit and signed the final straw after opposing the book ban in her own library.

In March, a federal judge ordered 17 books returned to Kingsland library shelves while a civil lawsuit against the book ban continued. The works ranged from children’s books to award-winning nonfiction, including They Called Themselves the KKK: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group, by Susan Campbell Bartoletti; and It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex and Sexual Health, by Robie Harris.

Content-based restrictions on speech are presumptively unconstitutional and subject to strict scrutiny, U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman wrote in his March 30 ruling. He cited a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that prohibited communities from banning signs because of what they say.

The Llano County Commission considered but decided against closing the county’s three libraries in response to the ruling. Closing the libraries would have been eerily similar to the U.S. history of closing swimming pools rather than desegregating them, Halpern said.

Like Baker, Lesley had trouble finding work after being fired from the library system she led in Gillette, Wyo. Her resignation followed two years of unrest over problems with available books and library programs.

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Some of the same county officials who opposed a transgender magician’s plans to perform at the library joined local residents in trying to ban books, according to Lesley’s EEOC filing.

Baker and Lesley were both fired after local officials appointed new library board members willing to be more aggressive in removing books.

Our county commissioners appointed board members who were sympathetic to the people who wanted to remove the books. And it was a long dance to get it there. And in the end they had to fire me, I think, in order to achieve their goal, Lesley said.

The Campbell County Commission ignored a deputy county attorney’s recommendation not to appoint previous candidates to the board without re-interviewing them along with new candidates, according to Lesley’s EEOC claim.

I saw this as a well-executed attack on the library by a group of citizens and elected officials. “It was also an attack on the LGBTQ+ community,” she said. “And it was an attack on the books.”


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