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Librarians, who lost jobs for not banning books, are fighting back

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The American Library Association says challenges to books on their shelves are up sharply in recent years. In the cultural battle over what information should be publicly available, some librarians are losing their jobs. One fought back. Colorado Public Radio's Matt Bloom has her story.

MATT BLOOM, BYLINE: Brooky Parks started working in the teen section of a local public library in Erie, Colo., in 2019. The 49-year-old mom of two got to talk to kids every day and help them discover new books.

BROOKY PARKS: I loved it. It was probably my dream job.

BLOOM: As a part of her work, she launched an anti-racism workshop and what she called the Read Woke book club, focused on LGBTQ-themed books. Soon, the library district got complaints from two local parents about their titles, and managers cancelled her workshop and club. Parks was shocked.

PARKS: And I said, well, I don't understand why we're going to rename an entire book club just because two members of our entire community don't like the word woke. That's the very definition of censorship.

BLOOM: The library board also passed a new policy that discouraged, quote, "controversial events." Parks pushed back in public meetings, actions she said led to the district firing her after more than two years on the job.

PARKS: And they said, we just feel like you're not taking responsibility for any of this, and so your services are no longer needed.

BLOOM: The next month, she filed a discrimination complaint with the Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and Colorado State Civil Rights Commission, and she filed a lawsuit. But she hoped to prove her firing was discriminatory before taking her case to court. Her employer, the High Plains Library District, said they canceled Parks' programs to rework their titles because they promoted an agenda. Here's District Director Matthew Hortt at a board meeting in December.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MATTHEW HORTT: We're not restricting, we're not censoring information. What we're doing is we're trying to present it in a way we can have a discussion.

BLOOM: But after a year of investigating her case, Colorado's Civil Rights Commission ruled Parks' firing was illegal discrimination. And this fall, the library district settled Parks' lawsuit against them before it went to court for $250,000. Iris Halpern is her lawyer.

IRIS HALPERN: It sends a message out that there are consequences - financial consequences - and we can put guardrails up against things like censorship and discrimination.

BLOOM: Halpern is also representing librarians from Texas and Wyoming in similar cases.

HALPERN: What we're seeing is these terminations are backfiring within the communities where they happen.

BLOOM: The American Library Association recorded more than 700 attempts to ban books or censor library programming around racial or LGBTQ issues, the most on record. President Emily Drabinski says Parks' settlement victory is likely the first of many legal challenges.

EMILY DRABINSKI: This is a big win and it's an exciting one, and it buoys the rest of us in the field, I think, to learn about her fight and her win.

BLOOM: For Parks, the victory came at a cost. She was unemployed for eight months and had to get help from an online fundraiser to pay her bills.

PARKS: And without that, I probably would have lost my house.

BLOOM: She's now working again, this time at an academic library at the University of Denver.

PARKS: I know I sacrificed my dream job, but I can lay down and sleep at night knowing that I did the right thing.

BLOOM: As a part of her legal settlement, a lot changed at her former library. Librarians now get a chance to veto program cancellations, and a new policy states inclusive and diverse programming is encouraged.

For NPR News, I'm Matt Bloom.

(SOUNDBITE OF MENAHAN STREET BAND'S "BLACK VELVET") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Matt is a passionate journalist who loves nothing more than good reporting, music and comedy. At KUNC, he covers breaking news stories and the economy. He’s also reported for KPCC and KCRW in Los Angeles. As NPR’s National Desk intern in Culver City during the summer of 2015, he produced one of the first episodes of Embedded, the NPR podcast hosted by Kelly McEvers where reporters take a story from the headlines and “go deep.”