Laura DeLaney is the co-owner of Rediscovered Books in Boise, Idaho. She’s also a passionate organizer for the freedom to read and has been instrumental in opposing the latest book ban bill in Idaho.
Philomena Polefrone: Laura DeLaney, thank you so much for joining us for Free Expression Friday. We're celebrating some really good news in the ongoing fight against book censorship out of Idaho. To start, could you introduce yourself? Say what you do and how you came to be an advocate against book censorship.
Laura DeLaney: Good morning, Philomena. I'm also really glad to be here. Thank you for inviting me on. My name is Laura Delaney, and I'm the co-owner of Rediscovered Books in Boise, Idaho. We have taken on fighting censorship really since our very earliest days. In our first year of opening, I got an actual soapbox, and I stood it outside of our store and invited people to read aloud from banned books while standing on the soapbox. So this is something that has been a key point for us for all of our time as a store. Though in the last three years, it has taken on far more intensity. We've had a lot of attacks in Idaho against minorities and diverse voices. We said, we have a platform, we have a place, and we're going to speak.
And what we found is that us standing up and speaking made it easier for people around us to build coalitions for people to have a safe space to find their own peace, and that becomes its own reward. We now have a large coalition of organizations that fight against censorship based out of the Idaho Library Association, the Cabin Center for Readers & Writers, individual librarians, Babe Vote, the AAUW. There's an enormous number of groups that now make this a regular part of how they interact.
Philomena: And so the latest target for this coalition has been pushing back against Idaho House Bill 384. Can you tell us a little bit about what this bill is and why it's so important to oppose it?
Laura: HB 384 set it up so that there would be a punitive damage against a library for not moving a [challenged] book to an adult section. It's really awful because there's no recourse. So an individual comes in and says, “This book is harmful to minors.” They don't have to prove it, there's no review process, nothing. The library’s choice is either to say no, it's going to stay where it is, and pay the individual who filed the complaint $250, or move the book to an adults only section. And then that adults only section gets defined so that it has to have ID verification.
And that's impossible to do, because that means that you have to have guards keeping minors out of the adult section, so that they can't go in without a parent for any reason. That's an enormous hardship and would just gut libraries, cause a lot of infrastructure damage, and also just destroy that feeling of access to information.
Philomena: And to add some context, normally what happens is there's a challenge and then there will be a review committee to go through that challenge and decide whether it's warranted. Do I have this right, that in this case, it just circumvents that entire review process?
Laura: Yes. There is no review, there is no recourse for the library other than to pay the person.
Philomena: And in some cases, these are libraries that are not big enough to have an adults only section, right?
Laura: Actually, no library is big enough to do that, because that means that your 16-year-old researching George Washington Carver because he's an environmental studies student cannot walk into the adult section to get an adult biography. So yes, it totally circumvents that. One of the solutions that the East Idaho library would implement if they had to conform is they would just remove all minors from getting library cards. That is what their lawyer recommended for navigating this process.
Philomena: Idaho House Bill 384 kind of has a history, right? This isn't a bill that came out of nowhere. Can you talk a little bit about the veto of a similar bill by Governor Little last year and how that relates to HB 384?
Laura: So last year, we had a similar bill. They didn't have the adults-only part of the bill in there, but they did have a $2,500 dollar fine. And again, it was payable to the individual, and there were no restrictions — it was per infraction. So they could complain about 10 books and get $25,000. And there was also no residency requirement, so they didn't have to be a patron of that library.
Philomena: And it's pretty easy to see how this would lead to challenges that perhaps did not have the best interests of the public at heart, that perhaps we're not for actual damages. Frankly, it sounds like it would be a disaster.
Laura: Yes, and when Governor Little vetoed it, one of his big concerns was that this would lead to a lot of frivolous lawsuits and cost the state a fortune.
Philomena: In Idaho House Bill 384 are those concerns gone? In some ways it seems like it has similar provisions, right?
Laura: There is some language about being a patron, but it's very vague, which is in itself a huge problem with this bill, as in most bills of this type. It is so vague as to be open to wide interpretation, which again leads to a lot of lawsuits. The big change they made was they said, “Oh, it's only $250!”… Whee! OK.
Idaho has a lot of population in the southwest, but the total population for the state I believe is 1.5 million, maybe 1.8 million. Most of that's in the Treasure Valley. There are a lot of libraries in Idaho that are a single room. And the total library budget for the year including the librarian’s salary is under $50,000.
Philomena: So $250 for a tiny library like this is by no means small change.
Laura: No, and that has to pay for everything. That's facilities. That's books. That's the salary of the librarians. Idaho libraries are hardly overfunded.
Philomena: So we've seen a similar bill vetoed last year. It's sort of rewritten so in some ways it's addressed some of the concerns. But it's added new things that are equally or more worrying. Now HB 384 is introduced, and you get to organizing along with your coalition partners in Idaho. Can you tell me what the process was like of organizing against this bill?
Laura: So we started organizing really against this bill last summer, actually starting our advocacy campaigns, getting people to become members of the Idaho Library Association. Because you don't have to be a librarian to be a supporter of libraries. And that actually gave them broader means of support, it gives them a larger membership pool, and we started talking about this really all last summer with our Read Freely project. This was not something we started last week.
Other things that happened: we kept building our links with other community organizations. The Cabin has been an incredible supporter and has used their voice and platform to talk about the dangers of this. As I mentioned, the AAUW, Babe Vote, this went into voter registration pieces. So it started a long time ago. There's a coalition called the North Central Idaho Library Alliance. They actually approached us in December saying that they had gotten a permit for a rally on the capitol steps on January 13th. They were the people initiating that side of things and I am so grateful that they did. It allowed many things to happen because it is that broad coalition. Having something started by a group in northern Idaho actually has a lot more legs. We get a lot of, “You're in Boise, you don't really understand rural Idaho.” But having this rally come from that part of the state meant a lot, and it meant that we could really throw our support behind it, but not be the focal point of it.
We helped get the word out. They worked on it. We had friends of library boards sending information out all across the state. And then on the 13th, it was the worst snowstorm Boise had in… It wasn't as bad as the Snowmageddon, but it was definitely the biggest snow we had in awhile. All of our northern Idaho people could not come — and this is not a phrase you hear often — because of avalanche warnings. There were no roads to get from north to south.
So we did actually get permission to move the rally inside. So we were not doing a read-in on frozen capitol steps. That was wonderful and I’m very grateful for it. But even with all of that, our estimates are between 350 and 400 people were at the capitol steps on that Saturday afternoon. We had fantastic speakers. We had everything. We had legislators. We had librarians. We had authors. It was wonderful, and it was really important because we were able to tell them to show up on Monday the 15th, because House Bill 384 was going to be heard in committee. And that information went out on television. They set it for nine AM Monday morning on Martin Luther King day. I was like, really? Okay!
We had over 400 people submit testimony and the halls were packed. We filled both overflow rooms. We filled the committee chamber. And again, the testimony was approximately 325 people against the bill, 75 people for, but again, most of the testimony being heard was not from people in Boise. It was from people in outlying areas and Eastern, Idaho and smaller places. I think that made a huge difference.
Philomena: So the outcome for this case, so far, is optimistic.As I understand it, it was sent back to committee, but I suspect the fight is not over.
Laura: No. So at that committee, there were 11 Republicans and two Democrats. The committee declined to hear or take time to read all that testimony. Representative Gannon asked them to wait a day to vote so that they had time to review all the testimony that had been submitted. Chairman Crane dismissed that and called for an immediate vote and passed it out of committee with a do-pass recommendation to the House floor. It was scheduled to be voted on the house floor yesterday, Thursday the 18th.
On that day the chairman of the state affairs committee where the bill is being heard — he pulled the bill back. It was not done via vote or anything like that, but the lead on that, Senator Crane, pulled it back into committee. Anything that slows this down is good news. Slowing this down is great news.
I do still have some pretty significant concerns, though, because on Wednesday a Senate bill was pulled, and what I have heard from some of the folks I talked with there is that they are basically going to combine these two bills and reintroduce a new mega version, I suspect, of this bill. And in the meantime, we still have two other Senate bills to contend with.
Philomena: So this might be a tactical retreat from the book banning wing in the Idaho legislature.
Philomena: Sounds like it's time to keep organizing.
Laura: It is time to keep organizing, because I believe they're hoping that we won't be able to get that many people out again. And I hope that the work that we've done all year is us saying, “No. No, we are not neophytes. We are not naive. We know the direction you're trying to go and we're not interested.”
Philomena: So for people watching this who maybe have not thought that much about the fight for the right to read in Idaho, what do you hope they will take away from seeing your organizing, from seeing the fight against this bad bill?
Laura: I think what I love most is that there is no place that is one color. Never. There is a variety of people and viewpoints in every place. No place is a red block. I really feel like that's what we should have known from a long time ago, because we're booksellers! We know exactly how many different kinds of readers there are and how many different types of books there are to read. When I started in bookselling, I was like, “I'm pretty well-read. I know a lot about books.” Yeah. I knew nothing. And you cannot work in books without understanding the incredible diversity of our human condition. Or maybe I guess you can but I wouldn't want to be that. And that applies to our social and political environments as well. There are going to be ways to connect emotionally with them.
And the other piece is, use that ACLU guide to how to write testimony, because logic isn't where we're at. We are in the stage of arguing where it is connected to emotion and ideology. So when you have your testimony, explain why it's personal and why it matters to you. How it connects to you as a human. Logic is not going to help us move forward. We have to appeal to all sides of our humanity to get there.
Philomena: Laura Delaney, thank you so much for joining us. Your insight here is invaluable. And thank you so much to you and everyone else in Idaho who's doing this amazing organizing.
Laura: Thank you, Philomena. It was great to talk with you.