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A West Texas city is seeing a tense battle of book censorship and bans

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Texas is at the center of the fight over book censorship. In fact, it is second only to Florida in total instances of book bans in school libraries. That's according to a new report out today by PEN America. In the West Texas city of Midland, efforts to remove or recategorize public library books that touch on race, sex and the LGBTQ community have kicked off a battle over censorship and what is considered obscene. Mitch Borden of Marfa Public Radio has our story.

MITCH BORDEN, BYLINE: As Midland's Centennial Library opened on a recent Saturday, Midland County Commissioner Dianne Anderson arrived with a few friends to take books out of the Public Library's young adult section.

DIANNE ANDERSON: Go through a book. Read it. And if you feel that it needs to be pulled out, then pull it out, and you show it to me.

BORDEN: Commissioner Anderson claims she's not banning books. She just wants to put them out of reach of impressionable readers. But it's her second visit in the last few weeks. She first surprised librarians when she led a group into the children's section, removing dozens of books. Those titles include an "An ABCs Of Equality" (ph), "Antiracist Baby" and "My Two Dads And Me." Those were removed and locked in a back room because she believed they were inappropriate. Some of those books still haven't been returned to shelves. This time around, Anderson and her supporters didn't want to tell me what they are looking for.

"A Court Of Silver Flames" was taken off the shelf. They're hiding the book from me.

CATHIE BROTEN: OK, like, you're invading my space. Can you just back off?

BORDEN: One volunteer, Cathie Broten, tries to hide what she took off the shelf and refuses to talk to me.

BROTEN: Back off. This is private business. Back off.

BORDEN: But this is a public library. There is a process in which citizens can request that librarians remove or recategorize material. But these self-appointed censors don't have the authority to remove books on a whim. On this day, they ended up checking out books to make their case at county meetings that there's obscene material in the stacks. What's happening in Midland is part of a larger national trend, but it's especially big in Texas. In 2022, according to the American Library Association, the state led the nation with the most documented demands to restrict books and censor libraries. Commissioner Anderson has spearheaded the effort in Midland. During a recent meeting, she said she had to act because library staff weren't doing anything about what she calls explicit and offensive material.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANDERSON: The community standard of what is appropriate for the books in our library was never going to come from our library director.

BORDEN: A new county policy states books in the children's and teen sections that are deemed obscene under the Texas Penal Code have to be moved to the library's adult section. But in Texas, to be considered obscene, a work has to be sexually explicit and, quote, "lack serious literary, artistic, political and scientific value." And the county's library director says there's no evidence any book in the county's collection meet that standard. That hasn't stopped officials, including Midland County Judge Terry Johnson, from defending efforts to pull books he claims are pornographic.

TERRY JOHNSON: Nothing's been banned. Nothing's been burnt. We're just saying we don't want our young people exposed to some of the things that they're exposed to.

BORDEN: That includes books about sex education, surviving sexual assault as well as works about drag queens and sexual identity. Shirley Robinson with the Texas Library Association says ignoring policies and procedures to move books off shelves or to recategorize them is censorship.

SHIRLEY ROBINSON: It's a clear violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendment. And when you start removing books from an area or putting them in a locked room or creating barriers for people to access information, that's when you start violating those rights.

BORDEN: Heather Bredimus, a mom of four, has become a vocal opponent to censorship in Midland. She's repeatedly heard people say they are just trying to protect children. But she says this is clearly part of a political agenda.

HEATHER BREDIMUS: I feel like this is a facade. The only thing that will stop it are lawsuits, unfortunately.

BORDEN: At this point, no one has filed suit against Midland County. For their part, many of the county commissioners remain adamant that what they see as obscene books need to be moved out of the children's and young adult sections. For NPR News, I'm Mitch Borden in Midland, Texas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Mitch Borden