Colorado Lawmakers Make Second Attempt at Curbing Book Bans in Public Libraries

Bill aims to protect libraries from ‘ban bombing’ tactics.

This is a photo of a school library.

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Colorado legislators are advancing a last-minute bill that would require public libraries to implement guardrails on how they review and remove materials in their catalogs.

Senate Bill 24-216 would require boards for public libraries across the state to establish written policies on how they acquire, display and use library resources, as well as a process for reconsidering materials. State Sen. Lisa Cutter, a Littleton Democrat sponsoring the bill, said many libraries already have these processes in place and will be able to keep them.

The bill’s introduction comes shortly before the end of the 2024 legislative session, and months after lawmakers killed a similar bill, Senate Bill 24-49, in February. The new version has broader support given its focus solely on public libraries — the previous bill included school libraries as well, but many school districts opposed the policy. Cutter said that otherwise, the provisions in the new bill are almost exactly the same.

The bill would require libraries to adhere to certain procedural standards when a member of the public seeks to remove material from their collections. During the review, the material would have to remain in circulation, and the results of the review must be made available to the public. Library materials covered by the bill include digital and physical book collections, as well as displays and community programs.

The bill would also require that someone challenging a book or other library material lives within the service area of that library. Materials would also be eligible for reevaluation once every five years. Cutter said both of these requirements are intended to protect library staff from “ban bombing” to ensure they aren’t overwhelmed with hundreds of requests.

Cutter said librarians work hard to curate materials that patrons will benefit from under a tight budget, but attacks from “culture war extremists” have threatened the ability for other library patrons to access the materials and programming they need. The bill would also prohibit retaliation, such as demotion, firing or discipline, against someone working at a library who refuses to remove a library resource before it has gone through the review process.

“This is a very thoughtful process that librarians go through, and instead of simply choosing not to attend an event or check out a book, other people want to make those choices for others,” Cutter said at the bill’s committee hearing Monday. “Public libraries have a duty in our system to challenge censorship and to stand firmly against partisan or doctrinal disapproval when making their decisions.”

While she said she was disappointed after the first bill failed, Cutter still wanted to establish standards for public libraries, many of which strongly supported the legislation. She said Senate leadership knew the bill was a priority for her and she’s grateful to have introduced it before the end of session.

“It’s really interesting to learn about other experiences and other cultures and broaden your worldview,” Cutter said. “I’m really excited that we’re going to help support the idea that a wide range of literature should be available for people to enjoy and learn from and explore without unnecessary restriction.”

Support from librarians

Mark Fink, executive director of Anythink Libraries, the public library system in Adams County, testified in support of the bill on behalf of the Colorado Association of Libraries. He said the bill challenges censorship and protects the right to read freely, as well as library workers.

“Our community is becoming more diverse and our library needs safeguards so we can amplify all the voices and experiences of our residents and include diverse items in our collection that resonate with them,” Fink said. “This bill protects our ability to do this important work.”

Fink said parents are entitled to determine what they want their children to read, but that right does not extend to other children.

“While a specific book may not be the right fit for one child, that doesn’t mean it isn’t the perfect fit for another child,” Fink said.

In the last few years, an unprecedented wave of book bans and censorship spurred by parents and right-wing groups has targeted books that center on the LGBTQ+ community, Black history and diverse stories across the country. Douglas County Libraries rejected an effort last year to ban four LGBTQ-focused books after months of meetings and public comment.

State Sen. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, a Commerce City Democrat and co-sponsor of SB-216, said at least 136 book titles were challenged across Colorado in the first eight months of 2023 — a 143% increase from 2022, according to the American Library Association. Fink added that materials representing LGBTQ and BIPOC voices made up 47% of the titles targeted in Colorado last year.

“Regardless of background, zip code or socioeconomic status, we have a right to read a wide range of materials that provide us with the knowledge base and the critical thinking skills that we need to be informed citizens who will contribute positively to our democracy,” Michaelson Jenet said at the committee hearing. “Our communities deserve to be represented in public spaces like public libraries, and codifying those legal standards demonstrates our commitment to protecting all Coloradans.”

The Senate Education Committee approved the bill in a 4-3 vote along party lines. Republicans on the committee thought the five year limitation on material review was too long.

The committee approved two amendments to the bill, making changes to some definitions and wording to better align with library terminology and to win support from the Colorado Municipal League.

The bill will now go to the full Senate for consideration. The 2024 legislative session will conclude on May 8.

Colorado Newsline is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Colorado Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Quentin Young for questions: info@coloradonewsline.com. Follow Colorado Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.

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