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Book bans have no place in the Flathead

by Dave Fern
| March 3, 2022 12:00 AM

Early in my tenure on the Whitefish School Board, I gave a copy of the graphic novel “Maus” to the high school library.

I hoped the book was shelved, but if not, I trusted the process within our district policy that established a process for book selection. A few years before my contribution I had attended a world history class at the high school.

A highly respected, veteran teacher took me to the side as I entered the room. He said, “We’ve been studying World War ll, inclusive of the Holocaust. I have a student who espouses sympathy for the Nazi cause and denial of the Holocaust. I want you to be prepared for such a dialogue.”

The topic was never broached by the student in question, but it shows how the Constitutional right to freedom of speech is often messy. Often during our school board policy reviews, we worried about the disruptive powers of expression, print in books, hair color, homecoming parades or simply put, the infringement of our expectations of an orderly, controlled environment. But we worked to strike a balance that protected our community’s right to freedom of expression.

The Imagine If county library system is facing a set of challenges to this freedom that have attracted statewide attention. Even though the library has been stalwart in providing professional staffing and product, the library board has engaged in some very troubling decisions.

First, it discussed banning books by trying to pull several works it disagreed with off the shelves. By doing so, they entered the world of restricting free access to knowledge and second-guessed the library director the board entrusted to make decisions about how to run the library.

Secondly, following the resignation of the director, the board hired a replacement who lacks the training necessary to run a library of this size and quality. That decision jeopardized the library’s state funding, but instead of taking responsibility for their actions, the board tried to get a waiver from the Governor’s Office.

So, here we are. The right to read is under threat from people unwilling to confront ideas that make them uncomfortable, and who want to hide from the consequences of their actions. Folks here in the Flathead have had a front-row seat to prime-time attack on the freedom of expression.

Remember, implementation of the First Amendment is messy and often disruptive. In a world craving fundamental freedoms of expression, I’ll side with a professional library staff and their ability to choose and shelve books in the appropriate locale.

When “Maus” was removed from the shelves in a Tennessee school district, the book experienced a welcomed resurgence — which goes to show that when people try to restrict the freedoms of their neighbors, they will push back.

I stand steadfastly for local control and sometimes that means we’ll see our local decision-makers making mistakes. I also believe in holding them accountable when they do.

Our board would be wise to reject the book bans so popular in other states, leave the everyday tasks of book access and media purchases to staff, and look forward to a library that can hold its head high when compared with its counterparts in our state’s other largest cities.

Rep. Dave Fern, D-Whitefish, represents House District 5 in the Montana State Legislature.

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