Interview with Maria Hanrahan, founder of West Bend Parents for Free Speech

Maria Hanrahan is the founder of West Bend Parents for Free Speech. She has been a library user for as long as she can remember.) She grew up inand moved to West Bend, Wisconsin in 2001.  Maria works in the field of public relations and is a wife and mother of two voracious readers.  All four members of the Hanrahan family are avid users of West Bend Community Memorial Library.

KRRP: What was you initial reaction to the book challenges? How did your opinions and response change and evolve over time? 

MH: Initially, I was dismayed at the requests made in the complaint, and disappointed that no one seemed to be speaking out against the actions/requested library changes made by the complainants (Ginny and Jim Maziarka).  They were getting lots of attention locally in the press, and I thought, “someone needs to speak out against this,” and decided I wanted to be one of those people.

KRRP: What sort of response did you receive from the community? 

MH: At first, my website and efforts got slow response.   I created the website (West Bend Parents for Free Speech) in March and went on a local radio talk show a week after Ginny Maziarka did.  After the radio show, I started to hear from people who felt the same way about the issue as I did.  The website URL was shared via email by other citizens and slowly gained some attention.

KRRP: What actions did you and the West Bend community take in response to the challenges? 

MH: In late March, the Maziarkas started circulating a petition that asked, among other things, for any book that had sexual content to be moved to the adult collection, and for labeling of “sexually explicit” books.  I also created a petition, asking the library board to keep materials as they are, unrestricted and unlabeled, and to enforce and create policies to protect the library from censorship.  During the month of March, two public library board meetings were scheduled.  The public came out to attend these meetings, but they had to be cancelled due to exceeding the venue’s seating capacity allowed by fire code.  Then in April, the Common Council voted against reappointment of four library board members, citing their “unresponsiveness” to the library complaint issue.

KRRP: What was the response to these efforts? Do you feel they were successful? Do you think they are applicable to other communities facing similar challenges? 

MH: A day after the library board reappointments were denied, we had a public petition signing at the library.  We collected about 200 signatures in two hours.  We also got considerable traffic on the website and the online version of the petition, which gained about 150 signatures in 24 hours.

On May 29th, members of my group (West Bend Parents for Free Speech) participated in a read-in at the library.  About 40 or so people walked from a nearby spot to the library together, than participated in the read-in promoting banned books.  Some participants read banned books list selections quietly inside and outside the library, others listened to Deborah Caldwell-Stone and Angela Maycock of the Office for Intellectual Freedom discuss the history of banned books and what the OIF does.

Both events were very successful, and other communities facing challenges should look for every opportunity to get the word out about what is going on, and come together to stop attempts to restrict materials.

KRRP: On June 2, 2009, West Bend’s library board voted to keep the books where they are. What was your experience of this meeting and how did you feel upon hearing this decision?   

MH: About 60 people got up to speak during the public input part of this library board meeting.  They were about evenly split between those that wanted the books to remain unrestricted and unmoved and those that wanted the books moved and labeled.  After the public input, a motion was made by one of the library board members to keep the Young Adult section unrestricted, and to not move or label any books.  Eight of the nine board members discussed this motion and made public comments.  Many of them discussed the idea that moving books in order to suppress them from other library patrons is a form of censorship, and that parents, not libraries, are responsible for deciding what reading material is appropriate or not for their children.  The board voted and unanimously decided to keep materials where they were, unrestricted and unlabeled.

Of course, I was very pleased with the decision and proud of the library board members for protecting the rights of all library patrons to determine what material is right for them and their children, and for upholding their duties as library trustees to protect the collection against attempts at censorship.

KRRP: Reflecting on this controversy, what would you like people, especially youth, in your community and other communities confronting similar issues to know?

MH:  I would like to encourage all libraries to adopt policy language that clearly states how book challenges will be handled and that materials in the collection will not be moved, restricted or labeled based on opinions about the morality or value of the contents.  Any communities that are facing book challenges of this scope should seek assistance from resources like the Office of Intellectual Freedom, American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, and the National Coalition Against Censorship.  If it is a book challenge affecting the Young Adult section, as this one was youth library patrons should be encouraged to speak out against attempts to restrict their access.  All library patrons should speak out to protect their rights and their access to materials.

KRRP: Considering the June 2nd result, do you feel this issue has been resolved?

MH: I don’t imagine the complainants and their group (now called West Bend Citizens for Safe Libraries, or WBCFSL) will give up completely on their attempts to restrict access to certain materials.  West Bend Parents for Free Speech pledges to keep following this issue and to speak out and take action against any attempts to censor or restrict library materials.

KRRP: What is your sense of the vibe at the library and in the community now?

MH: Amusingly enough, library usage is up and there has been an increase in new library cards being issued since this whole debate began.  Of course, having a library card in times of economic uncertainty is a great idea; the library has always been a great value, but in current times, it is a fantastic deal.  I’m sure this has something to do with increased patronage.  A camaraderie between library patrons and between patrons and staff is very apparent these days, as many citizens have come together to support the library and have established new friendships through this effort.

KRRP: The challenges focused on ‘homosexual’ themes and passages in the books. Some commentators have identified this as an increasing trend. Would you like to comment on this?

MH: This is definitely a worrisome trend.  A person can go to various websites and find lists of books the website/organization suggests should be challenged, and in many cases find sample form letters for people to submit to their libraries.  There is evidence that this is how our West Bend materials challenge began.  When the complainants met criticism of their requests, they changed their requests to make it seem like it was about protecting children versus restricting access.  Citizens that are against this type of action need to respond to each new request or change accordingly.