Freedom To Read

Small groups of vocal people around this country are working to make schools and libraries a battle ground for parental rights and restricted access to books and ideas. This played out in a big way in the small picturesque town of Old Lyme, Connecticut. What happened there will continue to shape the town for years to come.





Sam Lee: [00:00:00] Let’s be frank. If libraries were providing pornography, we would be seeing a whole lot more teenage boys in the library getting really excited.

Isabelle Barbour: [00:00:12] Hello, beautiful WPKN listeners. My name is Isabelle Barbour and I’d like to welcome you to WPKN’s mic Check.

[00:00:58] Today is October 1st, and it is the first day of banned Book Week, which runs until October 7th. I’ve been seeing a lot of media around book challenges and bans, and the thing that I keep thinking about is what was happening in the community prior to that and what happens when the book challenge or Ban is done. What then? Today we’ll get started in Old Lyme, population about 8000. It’s located where the Connecticut River meets the Long Island Sound. It’s pretty. And vacationers come each summer from other parts of the Northeast. Old Lyme is over 90% white and has failed for years to build affordable housing. It’s a town that is increasingly divided.

[00:01:52] We’re going to get started outside. It’s April 28th, 2023, and it’s a very wet and chilly afternoon. There’s a protest going on that was organized by the Democratic Town Committee of Old Lyme in response to some troubling language that came from the Republican Town Committee of Old Lyme. Kim Thompson was one of the organizers of the protest.

Kim Thompson: [00:02:21] When the Republicans sent out their letter back in March that was asking for support and laying out their platform for the year, one of the points on their platform really jumped out at me. That was they’re planning to run candidates who support standing up for parents rights in the schools when it comes to the curriculum and school policy. And to me, that was alarming language. Having seen what’s happened in Florida and Texas and so many other places across the country, when parental rights are invoked that that language of set me. And so I sort of immediately reached out to some other members on the DTC and said, wow, like this is shocking. What can we do?

Isabelle Barbour: [00:03:07] One of the people that Kim reached out to was Dave Rubino. Dave is a human rights lawyer who lives in town, and he was in the midst of his own thoughts about the Republican town committee’s flier.

Dave Rubino: [00:03:20] That struck me as lockstep with the national sort of culture war movement that’s happening from the Republican Party. It came about two weeks after the Republican CPAC convention. And where they were, they were talking about parental rights, you know, from from beginning to end, essentially. And more importantly, as a parent of two kids in this town, A. I know there isn’t an issue with parental rights in our school system.

Isabelle Barbour: [00:03:50] The reactions to the flier from the Republican Town Committee continued to ripple.

Steve Jungkeit: [00:03:56] So my name is Steve Jungkeit. My position is senior minister of the First Congregational Church here in Old Lyme.

Isabelle Barbour: [00:04:05] Steve included his thoughts about the Republican Town Committee’s flier at a March 26th sermon, and in it he talked about how the language of parental rights had become really a dog whistle to deny the voices of marginalized communities. What followed was an op ed from the chair of the Republican Town Committee. In his op ed, the chair of the RTC seemed astonished that the words parental rights could be seen as a dog whistle. Old Lyme is a small community and most people aren’t strangers from each other.

Nancy Gladwell: [00:04:47] I know the author. I have known him to– We were good friends. And I was I was shocked because I’ve known him to be a very moderate Republican. It was very surprised with this turn of the Republican Party. And it scares me. He knows what that language is.

Isabelle Barbour: [00:05:03] The people that showed up on that chilly April afternoon were a thoughtful bunch.

Anna James: [00:05:08] My name is Anna James. I’m an educator, currently retired, but have been in the field of education my whole career. I am very passionate of ensuring that we all– our children, fellow citizens of our community have the freedom to read whatever we want to read.

Isabelle Barbour: [00:05:26] The language of freedom to read might just sound like pretty language. But the Supreme Court and other courts have held conclusively that there is a First Amendment right to receive information as a corollary to the right to speak. Being that I was getting into some constitutional issues, I brought in some high powered help.

Sam Lee: [00:05:47] I’m Sam Lee. I am co-chair of the Intellectual Freedom Committee of the Connecticut Library Association. I am also a privacy advocate with the Library Freedom Project. So I like to talk about the role of libraries in the community by talking about the First Amendment. So the First Amendment gives us the freedom of speech, but the other half of the freedom of speech is the freedom to receive speech. The way you receive speech is through reading and reading of books. So when you have the First Amendment right to the freedom of speech, you also then have the freedom to read and the freedom to read is this beautiful thing that empowers you and gives you the freedom to think. And libraries are this beautiful place that celebrates the freedom of speech by having books on the shelves so that the community can read and think for themselves.

Isabelle Barbour: [00:06:45] It can be challenging to see the threats to our constitutional rights coming.

Isabelle Barbour: [00:06:50] Do you see things that concern you in the local community around the threat of book banning.

Anna James: [00:06:57] In this community? I do not see a concern.

Isabelle Barbour: [00:07:02] In late June, a letter with about 130 co-signers was sent by Steve Spooner. Steve is a member of the old Lyme Republican Town Committee, or RTC. The letter was sent to library officers, the board of trustees, the library director, the school board, the superintendent of the school district, and other people as well. It complained about the Youth sexual Health book. Let’s talk about It by Erika Moen and Matthew Nolan. And it also included information about additional books that were deemed problematic. The complaint highlighted a few pages that were described as graphic content. A detail in the letter– some of the signers had already met with the middle school principal and gotten assurances that this type of material was not going to be available in our schools. The letter included the ominous sentence: “We encourage a change in the library’s focus for our community’s children.” It also spent some time specifying that the group was not in any way advocating the banning of books.

[00:08:15] This letter became known as the book banning letter.

[00:08:20] Let’s have a little more context about both the library and the letter. The Phoebe Griffin Noyes Library is the name of the old Lyme library. It is a 500 and 1C3 nonprofit organization. It runs independently from the town. It has a library board and a director. It does, however, receive significant funding from the town and from donors in the community. The letter was signed by a major donor, a member of the library board, several members of the school board. It was also signed by first Selectman Tim Griswold and selectman Matthew Ward. Both are Republicans and members of the Republican Town Council, or RTC.

Sam Lee: [00:09:11] We haven’t seen bans in Connecticut, but we have seen a lot of pushback from certain vocal minorities who want to control what people are reading and what people are seeing and compromising their community’s constitutional rights.

Isabelle Barbour: [00:09:31] I met with Dave Rubino, who you heard from earlier, to process everything that was going on in our community and talk about the issue of the book challenge and how it related to other things going on in the town. Were you surprised about the fact that book Banning came up here?

Dave Rubino: [00:09:54] No, not at all.

[00:09:55] So I looked at the books and I thought that the complaints with the books, which were huge volumes, 230 something pages and 1 in 400 or something, pages in the other had maybe a handful of pages that could be considered to be questionable for some. But the crux of those those books were really, I thought, helpful for teenagers who are trying to grapple with ideas about sexuality and about sexual education. And so it seemed to me that banning these two books or even moving these two books to a section where they would be less accessible for those who need them most, seemed to be the very epitome of book banning, the very epitome of of of censorship. And I decided to reach out to some other parents and see if they felt the same way. And it turns out an overwhelming number of parents in the community did feel the same way. And so they signed off on our letter, which ultimately had 650 or so signatories.

Sam Lee: [00:10:57] Letters of support are great seeing that overwhelming support, knowing that and showing other people that like, Hey, no, this group is a vocal minority. We have so many more people who are saying, Yes, we support the library, yes, we support the freedom to read, yes, we support the books in our collection. That’s really important.

Dave Rubino: [00:11:19] After we sent our letter, there was a lot of pushback from both those who authored the the original letter and then members of the Republican Town Committee. Claiming that we had somehow manipulated the facts and that nobody wanted to book Ban and that they were just trying to protect eight year olds from seeing pornography.

Isabelle Barbour: [00:11:40] Because of the defensiveness with the Republican Town Committee and the signers of the challenge letter saying that what they wanted wasn’t book banning. I wanted to make sure to really clarify with Sam Lee what constituted book banning. And I was really struck in our conversation by how normal it was for librarians to make choices about where to put materials and how they could assess and make different choices at a later time. I got very specific with Sam about our immediate scenario because I didn’t want to have any daylight in my understanding about what was happening in old Lyme and what constituted a book ban.

Isabelle interviewing Sam: [00:12:25] We’ve been talking about when you make something not accessible to the people who it’s designed for and it goes against a librarians professional opinion that that starts to feel akin to a book ban for this population. Yes. And I’m I’m I’m belaboring this a little bit because there’s been a lot of pushback from our Republican Party in town that, you know, things are being misconstrued. And this isn’t a book ban. This is just not having pornography in the tween section. Right? Like so– so these words matter.

Sam Lee: [00:13:10] They absolutely matter. And I would argue that they are misconstruing their terms. So in Connecticut, it is outlined in our general statutes what obscenity is and what pornography is. Those books in question, the nonfiction books that are targeted to young adults and teens, they do not meet the statutory definition of obscenity in Connecticut. They don’t. Something else to consider when it comes to talking about obscenity and pornography in the library is that it has to meet the Miller test in order for it to be considered obscene.

Isabelle Barbour: [00:13:51] The Miller test is the result of a Supreme Court decision in a 1973 case. Miller versus California. It has three prongs, and it determines whether speech or expression can be labeled obscene. If speech or expression can be labeled obscene, it is not protected by the First Amendment.

Sam Lee: [00:14:14] And one of the first tenants of the Miller test is that a piece of work has to be taken as a whole. You can’t pick and choose scenes that happen to be provocative or happen to be more graphic as the one reason you’re getting rid of the entirety of the book because it still has artistic or intellectual value for that community. You can’t just use that one scene to push back and say, Hey, we don’t want this in here because it’s obscene or it’s inappropriate. You don’t get to decide that.

Isabelle Barbour: [00:14:51] In a closed door meeting on July 11th, the board of trustees of the library met to consider the book challenge, and they determined that the books in question met the selection criteria, as stated in the library’s collection development policy, and that they were keeping the books. The board affirmed its policy that selection of materials will not be made on the basis of anticipated approval or disapproval, but solely on the basis of the principles stated in the policy. Library materials will not be marked or identified to show approval or disapproval of their contents, and no material will be sequestered except to protect it from injury or theft. It should have ended there, but it didn’t.

Dave Rubino: [00:15:44] In this youth section. There were some signs defaced clearly by somebody either from this town or who had some reason to be in this town on multiple occasions because the defacement of the signs was done in a manner that wasn’t somebody who took a pen and wrote on them. They had. Printed up stickers and brought them and placed them so that the signs, which initially said trans people belong here. Somebody saw those signs, must have gone home, concocted some sort of design where they printed up stickers that said don’t and they put trans people don’t belong here. And then a picture of a trans person with an X through them.

Sam Lee: [00:16:30] I’ve worked in children’s services at the beginning of my career and it was wonderful to see kids find books on the shelves with characters that looked like them to be like, Hey, that’s me. They’re validated and it’s beautiful and it’s worth protecting.

Isabelle interviewing Sam: [00:16:47] One of the things — as you’re speaking that I’m thinking about is how there’s other views that tend to accompany. Book challenges. Things that tend to come along with wanting to deny that free speech element or what kind of speech or who gets to speak or who gets to be seen.

Sam Lee: [00:17:11] Yeah. So book challenges as they’re coming up again–I think of it as a bad faith argument. These challenges, they’re targeting specific titles. They’re targeting books by BIPOC authors. They’re targeting BIPOC stories. They’re targeting LGBT authors. They’re targeting LGBT stories. And what they’re doing by doing that is marginalizing those stories and by marginalizing those stories. They’re dehumanizing members of those communities. And when they do that, it is to fuel hate, it’s to fuel ignorance, and it is to make it dangerous for those members of the community by banning those books or by challenging those books. They are challenging members of those communities. They are actively trying to deny their humanity. It makes it so much easier for them to then deny them their rights, strip them of the legal protections that they have, because those aren’t real people anymore. We don’t see them represented in books. We don’t see them represented in our community. So why are we worried about them?

[00:18:23] It’s a great way to entrench power. It’s a great way to, again, dehumanize these groups so that it’s easier for for other people to keep on hating them. And it’s a distraction technique for other organizations and other groups to continue to disenfranchize people. And not just not just the historically marginalized, but everyone else too.

Isabelle interviewing Sam: [00:18:52] It sets the expectations that that everything is suspect and it has a kind of a chilling effect.

Sam Lee: [00:18:58] Yeah, it’s absolutely a chilling effect. The moment you decide that you can’t introduce a book about an LGBT character to young children, well then it makes it harder to introduce that book to a middle schooler or a high schooler. And then suddenly you have a high school graduate, 18 years old, who’s never encountered a gay person because they’ve never felt comfortable coming out in a community that doesn’t support them if they get rid of the books. And so it makes it easier for this now adult to say, hey, they’re not here. They’re they’re not a member of my community. I don’t know who they are. And then they listen to what else is being said about them, the propaganda.

[00:19:42] It changes the Overton window of acceptability. The moment you get rid of the books, you move the window. Overton Window is the window of acceptability. So you have this window, you have this frame of reference where the fringe is always going to look like the fringe until the fringe grabs more of your attention. And the book challenges that we’re seeing is shifting that window. So now we’re saying, oh, okay, they’re banning these books, maybe it is okay to ban them. It’s shifting that window very slightly so that it is then it eventually becomes acceptable to not just ban the books, but ban the people.

Isabelle Barbour: [00:20:26] This is something that I talked to Dave about. He had stepped down from a an economic development committee because to be on it, he would need to serve with somebody who was being really inappropriate. He describes.

Dave Rubino: [00:20:44] The situation was this is a person who had run for Board of Education on a platform that included things like, you know, anti-vax anti-masking. But again, promoting this in a way that I felt was inappropriate and at times posting things on her Facebook page that in my view were were even racist. I think one of the things that were listed up on her page was something along the lines of, “black privilege, the ability to commit crime and still claim you’re the victim”.

Isabelle Barbour: [00:21:17] So Dave wrote an email that had his concerns and had screenshots of really offensive statements from this individual, and he shared it with the board of select people. And this is what happened.

Dave Rubino: [00:21:38] Both the first selectman and the and the Republican selectman that were on the board disregarded it, didn’t respond to me, but did bring it up at the selectmen meeting and said, in fact that it was me who should be the one that is chastised because it’s hard to get people to volunteer for things. And given the fact that I’ve attacked her like this, she may never want to volunteer for anything again.

Isabelle Barbour: [00:22:07] It’s not the racism that’s shocking. It’s the complaining about the racism. It’s the asking for the racism to stop, which becomes shocking.

Dave Rubino: [00:22:18] We’re at a bit of an inflection point, both as a nation and as a town. And to try to divide those two and pretend that these are two separate things I think is a mistake. I think we have to realize that everything that’s happening at the national level is also happening in tandem at the local level. And that if we don’t stop it at the local level, we’re not going to be able to stop it at the national level.

Isabelle Barbour: [00:22:40] When I talked with Sam Lee about this, she shared with me information about the Library Freedom Project and how it has grounded itself in these root causes that are issues that destabilize libraries and democracies.

Sam Lee: [00:22:59] Library Freedom Project is this wonderful group of librarians all across the country. We have a feminist approach. We are anti-racist. We are harm reductionists, and we are committed to protecting the First Amendment and looking at struggles of these book challenges with a lens to power. Who has power, why and what are they trying to do with it? When it comes to these challenges, it’s very obvious to us that it is about white supremacy. It is about entrenching power. It is about the continued marginalization and dehumanization of our LGBT friends, of our bipoc friends of our Jewish friends. We’re worried about that escalating towards violence.

Isabelle interviewing Sam: [00:23:51] Yeah, we’re seeing it escalate, right?

Sam Lee: [00:23:54] Oh, yeah, absolutely. There’s been this poor library out in the Midwest. Want to say Iowa City. They they actually said no to the Moms for Liberty meeting In one of their meeting rooms.

Isabelle Barbour: [00:24:08] The Moms of Liberty Group has been designated an anti-government extremist group by the Southern Poverty Law Center because of the extreme exclusion work that they do in schools, they are well funded by far right groups, and they have made a name for themselves with very aggressive tactics at school boards, libraries and other venues. They’ve harassed community members, including educators and librarians, and they advance hateful misinformation about LGBTQ people and communities. They are actively infiltrating school boards around the country.

Sam Lee: [00:24:46] They’ve been getting bomb threats. The library — they had as of yesterday, I think they had three bomb threats at their library. And these are librarians.

Isabelle Barbour: [00:24:55] Because of the escalating threats to libraries and to intellectual freedom more broadly, Sam recommends vigilance.

Sam Lee: [00:25:04] So I would want people to go to their library board meetings if their community is dealing with a book challenge. If you’re hearing about somebody saying, Oh, this book is pornographic or Oh, this book is obscene, or Oh, we’re trying to protect the children, or, oh, what about parental rights? Start going to those meetings and pay attention if there are challenges coming up, not just at library board meetings, but school board meetings as well. We’re seeing a lot of book challenges at schools with parents saying, Oh, this is a parental right issue. We have the right to know. We have the right to this. We have. We don’t want this book for our kid. Well, that’s fine. But there are other kids in the district. If you are passionate about protecting the right to read and the First Amendment, run for those positions.

Gavin Lodge: [00:25:56] I — I do like sticking my neck out a little bit. I like advocating on behalf of the community. And I think there’s a lot of issues these days that are coming up that school boards are all the more necessary, and I want to be part of that.

Isabelle Barbour: [00:26:13] That was Gavin Lodge. He is a candidate for the Lyme-Old Lyme School Board. I asked him about the importance of having somebody on the board who would defend intellectual freedom and what was at stake for this election, given that one of his opponents signed the book Banning letter.

Gavin Lodge: [00:26:35] Those voices are taking us backwards and to another time to to 100 years ago. Unfortunately, even just say 50 years ago. But and that isn’t the way. We want to raise our kids to be able to have a stronger, healthier America or a stronger, healthier Connecticut or stronger, healthier old Lyme. And so what’s at stake is our future leadership, our future intelligence. Our future democracy.

Isabelle Barbour: [00:27:05] Something that I’ve noted as I’ve read stories around book challenges and bans is that there’s a really important perspective that’s missing from a lot of the commentary. I wanted to make sure to not make that same mistake. So before we close, I want to include one more very special conversation. Here’s Barry talking on a chilly April day. A lot of people are talking about protecting kids from books. What do you think of that?

Bea: [00:27:35] I think that there’s nothing to protect about because they should be protecting them from not reading books. Like we need to read books. We need to learn, and we need to realize that things are happening in the world. And we need to be aware of them and understand that things are going on and we need to help them. And I think that books help people understand and maybe feel more comfortable going out and expressing those things.

Isabelle Barbour: [00:28:01] Do you have a favorite book?

Bea: [00:28:03] Yes, I really like to kill a mockingbird. I just finished reading it and I also really liked The Hunger Games.

Isabelle Barbour: [00:28:12] You can find out more about the scourge of book challenges and book banning in our country by going to They also have everything you need to do anti book banning week right! Many thanks to everybody who spoke to me about this important topic, both folks on and off the mic. Special thanks to my co pilots, Dave Rubino and Sam Lee. See you next time.