Finding Advocacy Allies

Library associations in Virginia team up to fight bad bills

May 4, 2018

Virginia General Assembly
Virginia General Assembly ©Zack Frank/Adobe Stock

Sometimes the hardest part of coalition building is knowing who to reach out to. Getting to know your library allies before a crisis—and understanding how to advocate effectively together—can increase your odds for success, especially in a legislative situation where time is not on your side.

In 2015, we—Virginia Beach City Public Schools Library Services Coordinator and Virginia Association of School Librarians (VAASL) Executive Board Member Kelly Miller and Virginia Library Association (VLA) Executive Director Lisa R. Varga—met at a state social function. A few months later, the Virginia General Assembly introduced legislation threatening intellectual freedom. We decided to coordinate our groups’ efforts, and with the support of the American Library Association’s (ALA) Offices for Library Advocacy and Intellectual Freedom, the advocacy partnership between VAASL and VLA was born.

Harnessing the power of our collective members and advocates across the state, the two organizations came together to fight against Virginia H. B. 516 (2016), which would require the board of education to establish a policy for schools to notify parents about “sexually explicit” instructional materials.

What became known as “the Beloved bill” was on the radars of both VLA and VAASL. In 2013, a parent in Fairfax County demanded that Beloved by Toni Morrison be removed from classrooms. Her concern, that the book was “too intense” for teenage readers, led to the introduction of H.B. 516. Challenges to Beloved are nothing new, but legislation to prevent the book (and potentially many others) from being used in classrooms would have been the first of its kind. VLA and VAASL knew that our voices would be stronger together, so we crafted letters to legislators and encouraged our members to call their representatives. The bill passed the Virginia General Assembly House and Senate but was vetoed by then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe.

Strong communication, consistent messaging

Following that veto, we correctly anticipated the issue would resurface in the 2017 legislative session, so we started to plan right away. We strengthened communications between our organizations by reinstating a liaison position to both of our boards. That individual attended meetings for both organizations and acted as a linchpin to connect our members. We shared articles about intellectual freedom issues across the country, making note of specific phrases and strategies or agencies that other library organizations partnered with. Robert Doyle’s Banned Books: Defending Our Freedom to Read (ALA Editions, 2017) retained a permanent place on Varga’s desk and was helpful in researching other intellectual freedom cases.

In November 2016, To Kill a Mockingbird and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn were pulled from school shelves in Accomack County in eastern Virginia. In early January 2017, the General Assembly introduced HB2191, which picked up where HB516 left off—it encompassed all instructional materials, not just library collections. HB2191 not only required parental notification of materials that explored specific themes but defined “sexually explicit content” as involving “any criminal sexual assault defined and punishable as a felony” under Virginia law. Collectively, we thought about all the books this legislation would affect, such as Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl, 1984, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and Speak. We also thought of the art, science, and health materials that dealt with sensitive subjects, and we knew we had to take more decisive action.

We responded quickly with a consistent message. VLA President Keith Weimer wrote a letter on behalf of our membership to Virginia Delegate R. Steven Landes, the chief sponsor of HB2191, asking him to reconsider the bill and its language. VLA also wrote to Cynthia Cave, assistant superintendent of policy and communications of the Virginia Department of Education, to explain our opposition. At the same time, To Kill a Mockingbird and Huckleberry Finn were placed back on the shelves in Accomack County, and VLA and VAASL wrote letters to their school board thanking them for supporting intellectual freedom. We breathed a quick sigh of relief when the board of education rejected the regulation, but we still had an uphill battle to fight with HB2191. The bill passed the House and Senate and landed on the governor’s desk.

Engaging our advocates

Though we were confident McAuliffe would veto the bill, we used ALA’s Engage platform to begin a letter-writing campaign, requesting that the governor veto the bill and that he had our support in doing so. Our advocates came out in droves, calling and emailing in a way we had not seen—or been able to track—before. Using Engage allowed us to build a mailing list of advocates across the Commonwealth of people we knew would step up and take action for libraries and intellectual freedom. It is a vital tool as we move forward.

We haven’t seen any legislative threats to intellectual freedom in 2018, but a bill was introduced (S.B. 261) that could have a negative impact on school library staffing by allowing school boards to replace one of the two required positions with a noncertified resource teacher. With our forces mobilized—access to Engage established a passionate group of advocates in our network—we set our plan in motion.

VAASL Social Media Chair Gretchen Hazlin created helpful graphics and scripts to encourage people to call their legislators and oppose SB261. VLA created an Engage campaign to assist in the fight. The bill moved quickly, while many members of our team were in Denver for ALA Midwinter. VAASL then reached out to the Virginia Education Association (VEA) for additional support. VEA President Jim Livingston and former VAASL and American Association of School Librarians President Audrey Church testified against the bill, which was defeated by two votes in committee.

In Virginia, we have made a commitment to each other and to the members of the organizations we support to collectively fight for intellectual freedom and support librarians, library staff, students, and educators. With the right tools, strong national support, advance planning, and open communication, other state and local library advocates can learn from our successes.