Books are a window into new worlds. They offer a reflection of our own stories and a chance to see ourselves differently. They open up doorways to explore our history and to envision our future.
That said, I realize no one is going to agree on the merits of every book on a library’s shelf. Some books will make you uncomfortable. Some books will make you question what you know. Some books will make you angry. There are some books you will think children shouldn’t read and some books that you hope everyone will read. But we do not get to decide what others read – and neither should our elected officials.
That, however, is exactly what the Laramie County School District 1 Board of Trustees recently did. The trustees voted to approve a new library policy for our schools, ending the existing “opt-out” policy where parents could choose their child’s access to library content, creating list of books, authors or books on a particular topic that they can’t check out. The board’s vote essentially undermines each parent’s responsibility for monitoring their own children’s choices to cater to the whims of a few vocal agitators and politicians. This comes after a 45-day comment period on the policy change which generated more than 1,500 comments – the majority of which were found to be against the policy – and strong opposition from teachers and librarians.
What happened to elected officials listening to their constituents? Our elected leaders – from U.S. senators and representatives, to state legislators, to mayors, to school board trustees – are all in office for one reason: to represent us. That’s at the very heart of our democracy.
But that’s not happening here.
Here, politicians enacted a measure that makes people think their opinions don’t matter. Here, politicians ignored people’s lived experience and expertise. Here, politicians even let people attack those for voicing their opinions. A teenager who spoke out in favor of keeping the opt-out policy during the board of trustees meeting was even heckled by some adults in the room for sharing her beliefs!
This is not what true democracy is about.
In a state like Wyoming, conflicts over values are inevitable. But we must remain true to our most basic civil liberties. Our right to speak, much less to parent, should not be contingent on our ability to gain political control – or for that matter, shout the loudest at a school board meeting.
It’s unthinkable that a handful of people should decide for everyone else what is or isn’t appropriate reading material. When it comes to protecting our kids, after all, ignorance has no armor. Knowledge is power and their absolute best weapon, and books are among the safest spaces to gather information. If we expect teenagers to drive safely and show up for work at their part-time jobs while juggling school and other responsibilities, they are certainly capable of choosing what books to read.
Freedom of expression for ourselves requires freedom of expression for others. For local governments – the LCSD1 Board of Trustees – to decide otherwise is dangerous.
Our elected officials should be defending free speech rights guaranteed by the First Amendment, not stifling them like this. And they shouldn’t be stifling – or ignoring – our opinions, either. Our elected officials should be listening to all of their constituents – not just a small, vocal minority.
When fear outweighs rational debate, civil liberties pay the price. We can do better. We must do better.