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July 22, 2024

Clamping down on book bans, harassment of librarians


New Jersey lawmakers are once again trying to set statewide guidelines for challenging books and other library materials, their effort to address campaigns to remove books from schools and public libraries as well as the harassment of librarians. 

Sens. Andrew Zwicker (D-Middlesex) and Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex) introduced a revised version of the Freedom to Read Act on Thursday. 

The bill seeks to set uniform guidelines for evaluating requests to challenge library materials including one that allows only those with a “vested interest” be allowed to request a book’s removal. And the bill intends to prevent the removal of materials because of the origin, background or views of their authors. The legislation would also protect librarians from being sued for doing their jobs and enable them to file a civil action against someone who harasses them.  

Zwicker said the legislation is important, given what is happening across the country, in New Jersey and in his district, where North Hunterdon High School librarian Martha Hickson again has become a target of supporters of so-called parental rights in education and the banning of books they consider inappropriate. 

An earlier version of the legislation, which was inspired by a conversation with Hickson, did not clear a Senate committee in the last legislative session.  

Residents support librarian who has been targeted 

Speaking to about 50 Hunterdon County residents gathered Tuesday at a library in Clinton to prepare for a board of education meeting later that night at which they had planned to support Hickson, Zwicker spelled out who would be able to seek a book’s removal: “If you want to challenge a book, you have the right to challenge a book, but you have to live in the town if you’re challenging a book. You have to be a teacher in a town that you’re challenging the book. You have to be a student in a town that you’re challenging a book. Or a parent. And if you’re not, you have no right whatsoever.” 

Zwicker called the legislation “new and improved” and said he hopes it will move quickly and pass both houses this year. While it’s unclear what Gov. Phil Murphy’s views will be of this specific bill, the governor did reference the issue in his State of the State address, saying “reading books is always better than banning books.” 

“It’s unbelievable that this is 2024 and we are again talking about this,” Zwicker said. Of the legislation, he said, “This right here is going to be the gold standard for the whole country.” 

The legislation has the support of the New Jersey Library Association, the New Jersey School Library Association and the New Jersey Education Association. 

Hickson said she has been the subject of harassment on Facebook and in at least one email that included an obscene sexist slur, since the Hunterdon County Project Facebook page posted videos of people reading aloud from the books “The Freedom Writers Diary” and “Let’s Talk About It” at board meetings to the NJ Schools Facebook page. In one of the videos, the camera zooms in on Hickson’s face as foreboding music plays in the background. 

“It felt very threatening,” said Hickson, who attended and spoke at the rally on Tuesday.

She said she contacted school administration and was told there was nothing they could do beyond blocking the email address of the person who sent the email. Hickson said she also contacted the Clinton Township Police Department. 

Feeling unsafe 

“It’s not a good feeling at all,” she said. “I often work late in the building, and I don’t feel safe there. Any time after 2:30, that man could walk into the building and make my life a misery.” 

Local residents made signs and showed up in force to support Hickson at the scheduled board of education meeting Tuesday night, but when the room became overcrowded, the board postponed the meeting and rescheduled it for next Tuesday in a larger space. Community members said they are planning to show up to the Jan. 30 meeting to support Hickson and the right to read. 

Hickson’s work as a librarian at North Hunterdon High School was first called into question at a board meeting in September 2021. Community members formalized challenges of five books, all of which the board of education voted to keep in the library’s collection. Hickson said this is when the harassment began.   

Support for legislation 

The revised Freedom to Read Act directs local boards of education to adopt policies on the curation of library materials based on a model policy written by the commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Education. School boards are also directed to adopt policies establishing procedures for addressing requests to remove materials from school libraries. The legislation includes similar guidelines and protections for staff members at public libraries.  

It has the support of the New Jersey Library Association, the New Jersey School Library Association and the New Jersey Education Association. 

“As parents, educators, administrators, and school board members, we stand united against prejudices, and politically motivated culture wars that target the right to read and access to education and information,” they wrote in a joint statement.