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Don’t Let Extremists Criminalize Librarians, Censor Libraries in Wisconsin

Tuesday, December 19, 2023

This opinion piece by State Superintendent Dr.Jill Underly appeared in the Wisconsin State Journal on Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2023.
Read it online here. 

As the state superintendent of Public Instruction, and as a parent and proud American, I believe in the freedom to read. 

Wisconsin voters elect the nonpartisan state superintendent to oversee school and public libraries because in our Constitution, our founding leaders believed public education, as an underpinning of a strong democracy, should include adult learning, too.

But as we’ve seen in recent years, public education is under attack, including in our libraries. I am really, really tired of anti-democratic extremists pretending they are protecting our kids when they fearmonger in the name of “parental rights.” I am sickened to hear reports of harassment and threats made against school and library staff.

This must stop, and we, the Americans who believe in the power of education and accessibility to knowledge and learning for all, are the ones to stop it. We must raise our voices against censorship and in support of our libraries. Otherwise, our rights are in danger.

Earlier this month, a legislative committee debated changing a state statute to remove protections for school and library employees. That’s a boring way of saying they held a hearing to try and criminalize librarians. I wish the hearing had stayed boring. Instead, it was a litany of uninformed adults intent on using (if I’m being generous) limited context and (if I’m being accurate) willful disinformation to drum up disgust and weaponize outrage. They are doing so because they want to shrink the diversity of cultures and deny the nature of pluralism until American society is as small as their own perspective.

But in the American experiment, our right to freedom is expansive -- and protected.

When the Legislature first wrote the law governing “obscene materials” that our current Legislature is trying to rewrite, they made it clear where Wisconsin stands: “The Legislature finds that the libraries and educational institutions … carry out the essential purpose of making available … materials that reflect the cultural diversity and pluralistic nature of American society.” The statute also establishes the “compelling state interest in protecting the free flow of ideas.” What a powerful statement on intellectual freedom.

Today's attempts at censorship are just the next step in a long line of anti-democratic and hateful attacks by extremists. They seek to marginalize anything that promotes a free, just and inclusive society, and anything that contains facts they disagree with.

First, they attacked any discussion in the classroom of race or racism, or the complicated history of this country, and misleadingly called it “critical race theory, or "CRT.” We unmasked their disingenuous and dangerous disinformation.

Then they attacked transgender kids and falsely asserted it was in the name of saving girls’ sports. We turned out in droves to defend their rights.

Now they are attacking public and school libraries, the books they hold and the people they employ. They claim this is about “innocence and safety.” Their claims are misguided and wrong.

Nothing is innocent about their attacks, and nothing is safe about keeping children uninformed. To be clear, these anti-democracy extremists are small in numbers and want to control the information you and your children can access. That doesn’t sound like liberty to me.

Attacks on our libraries are censorship. Taken all together, these attacks are an attempt to redefine what it means to be an American by stripping rights and protections, and by eliminating the possibility of exploration and curiosity. Tearing down is easy. But I want to build, and I bet you do, too.

So join me. It is time for all of us who support libraries to speak up. That is how we protect our children and our rights, and how we defend our freedom. We believe libraries are a component of a free society and democracy, and any attempts to restrict the materials that you, I, or our neighbors have access to is anti-democratic. We need to call it out for what it is.

In this state, in this democracy, we believe in the freedom to read.