For I think the second time since I moved to Crested Butte, I put on a suit last Wednesday. The first time was earlier the same month for my son’s wedding and last week was when I attended a hearing at the Colorado Court of Appeals in Denver.
Oral arguments in the appeal were heard at the Ralph Carr Colorado Judicial Center in front of a panel of three judges as part of the ongoing case of Brookhart v. Reaman. I’m the Reaman, so I figured it was best to wear a suit (plus I happened to have just bought one). The Brookhart is Drew Brookhart, the Gunnison County Library District executive director. He also showed up wearing a suit although I’m pretty sure I was the only person in the Judicial Center that day to change in a Trader Joe’s bathroom near the courthouse.
Anyway, the hearing basically concerned whether Brookhart could release to the media the names of people who file a form with the library district asking that books be relocated or banned. The Gunnison District Court had ruled that while the requests on the forms could be made public, the names should be redacted given a Colorado law that protects the identities of library users. That redaction is basically what the CB News is appealing with the help of the passionate attorneys from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. You see, we believe that if someone is asking to ban a book or program from a public library, it is in the public’s interest to know who is making such a request. Those filing a form asking to change public policy aren’t “using” the library and are in fact trying to prevent others from using library services.
The News and the Library District pretty much agree on the issue, and this understandably seemed to be a bit confusing to the appellate panel. Both the CB News and the Library District believe that democracy works best when it is open and transparent. We think any effort impacting public process and policy should be made in public and everyone has a right to know who is making the argument for each side. That is very different from wanting to know who checked out what book. We want to know if the person trying to deny you and me the opportunity to check out a book lives in this community or is following some national directive and resides in, say, Birmingham or Berkeley and is making such requests all over the country based on political beliefs rather than community standards.
It seems a pretty simple and logical idea to me. Democracy should be a public participation activity and not a shadowy, behind-the-curtain manipulation of secret process. Of course, nothing is simple, and the District Court didn’t totally agree with the News argument, which is why I found myself in a suit surrounded by marble and mahogany in Denver last week. The questioning at the Appeals Court was direct and pointed and if I had to bet, I wouldn’t put a lot of my money on what they will decide. I was glad our attorney Rachael Johnson of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press was in the hot seat answering the questions and not me.
Understand the changing dynamics. A report that was released last spring by the American Library Association (ALA) documented that attempted book bans and restrictions at school and public libraries continue to surge. Almost 1,270 demands to censor library books or resources were compiled by the association last year. That was nearly double the then-record total from 2021 and by far the most since the ALA began keeping data 20 years ago.
The report not only documents the growing number of challenges, but also their changing nature. The reports states that a few years ago, complaints usually arose with parents and other community members and referred to an individual book. Now the requests are often for multiple removals, and organized by national groups such as the conservative Moms for Liberty, which has a mission of “unifying, educating and empowering parents to defend their parental rights at all levels of government.” The vast majority of the books being challenged were written by or about members of the LGBTQIA+ community and people of color.
The bottom line to me, the newspaper, and Drew Brookhart and the local library district, is that if people want to argue for policy changes to public institutions like the public library, we are good with that. That is how democracy works and stays vibrant. But I am not good with doing it behind the cowardly cloak of anonymity and we will keep fighting to have what should be public discussions in the public. We will likely know in a few months if the three judges who heard the oral arguments agree… and I hope they do, so I can keep the suit in the closet.