A state investigation into a Northern Colorado library district’s decision to fire a librarian who promoted programs for LGBTQ teens and youth of color found that the district’s actions violated the state’s anti-discrimination laws.
In determination letters issued Wednesday, the Colorado Civil Rights Division (CCRD) found that the High Plains Library District violated state prohibitions on discriminatory firing and retaliation, and named three library district employees for aiding and abetting of discrimination.
According to documents obtained by Motherboard, state investigator David L. Martinez found sufficient evidence to support the former teen services librarian Brooky Parks’ claims. Parks claims she was fired near the end of 2021 in retaliation for engaging in protected activity on behalf of LGBTQ+ youth and youth of color.
“In mid November 2021, [the library district] decided to change their programming policy language to say that the district would not offer any polarizing programs or any programs that were intentionally meant to be inflammatory or change someone’s point of view,” Parks told Motherboard. “Within two days, I actually was instructed to cancel two of my teen programs: an anti-racism workshop for teens and an LGBTQ program for teens.”
Parks says she was also told to rename the “Read Woke Book Club,” a local offshoot of a national program started by an independent children’s book publisher, because it included the word “woke” in the title.
The amended policy for the High Plains District Library includes objections to programming of a commercial, political, or religious nature that favors one side over another, which is pretty standard for public libraries in the U.S. However, as far right groups continue to rally voters to defund their local libraries and target LGBTQ+ library workers, the concept of neutrality has all but dissipated from many libraries. In 2018, the American Library Association concurred that “A library as an institution represents a decision about how a community spends its resources, and those decisions are not neutral.”
When Parks tried to express her concerns that the new programming policy was a thinly veiled form of censorship, she says her comments went unheard. Frustrated by not getting anywhere, she reached out for community support, and the community started writing letters to the library’s board of trustees objecting to the policy as well.
“Once the community members started writing letters in and more attention got put on the matter, I was issued a written warning in which I felt like it was definitely in retaliation for me opposing the programming policy,” she said. “I was told that I could write a rebuttal to the written warning, and so I addressed each point. It was stuff that was taken out of context, it was stuff that was sometimes just completely flat out, false and inaccurate.”
The day after Parks submitted her rebuttal to the written warning, she was terminated.
“These programs are important to the teens because sometimes they don't have access to programs and services like that through their schools, or they don't have that support network at home, and they look to the library,” said Parks. “We're the ones that can fill that gap for them and make them feel included and seen and heard and valued.”
Iris Halpern, the attorney representing Parks and librarians in other states who have been fired under similar circumstances, says the civil rights division’s determination is significant because they’re among the first in the country to determine that censorship targeted at LGBTQ youth or youth of color is a violation of anti-discrimination laws.
“It’s become really expedient to manufacture a crisis around access to information and voices that didn’t exist before,” Halpern told Motherboard. “In a bunch of these districts, we’re seeing librarians being fired for declining to engage in or further book bans.”
Because Colorado law has aiding and abetting claims in its state civil rights law, which the federal government does not have under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the CCRD needs to go through a mediation process. Halpern says that because the division has already found probable cause, the CCRD could request the library district change its policies, hold workplace training on discrimination and retaliation, or seek monetary relief for Park, for example.
“The District does not comment with regard to ongoing litigation,” James Melena, community relations and marketing manager for High Plains Library District told Motherboard. “However, the District denies Ms. Parks’ claims. We disagree with the Commissions’ findings and look forward to continuing to provide library services to our patrons across the District.”
The state determination in Colorado could help librarians like Cara Chance in Lafayette Parish, Louisiana, who has had the threat of termination hanging over her since last summer for creating a Pride Month-themed book display. Katie Ruane, director of the U.S. Free Expression Programs for PEN America, says the Colorado Civil Rights Division’s decision could provide a roadmap for other states and the federal government to approach thwarting threats to library workers.
“Most states and the federal government have laws protecting people from discrimination on the basis of their protected class status,” Ruane told Motherboard. “What Colorado has done here is said that advocacy on behalf of people, because of their protected class status, can be something that is protected by the civil rights laws. So that is definitely an interesting way to go about protecting free expression and protecting the ability to tell these types of stories and protecting the people whose voices have been disproportionately impacted by the book banning attacks.”
Although Parks has found employment in librarianship elsewhere in Colorado, she says that working with teens has helped her understand how important these books and the supportive programming around them can be.
“They don't have these supportive services available to them all the time,” she said. “I think our kids need more support. They need more inclusive services, and just being able to provide that, in my mind, is just doing my job. To have a library district step in and, instead of doing the job of a library, try to impose their own personal beliefs on what can be presented to their community is wrong.”