Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.
In the spirit of transparency and balance, a central Minnesota library board recently voted to update the process it uses to decide the fate of books that citizens want removed from circulation.
During the past year, the Great River Regional Library board has fielded eight public challenges to reconsider or remove books and has seen the turnout for public meetings increase.
The St. Cloud-based board, which oversees libraries in six counties, plans to address those challenges in a way that respects First Amendment rights. The new process will include a quarterly staff review of challenges. That panel will make the preliminary decision. If that move is appealed, an internal staff review will be conducted. If those findings are appealed, the board could vote to form a committee to take a more in-depth look at the challenge. Once that committee makes a decision, a book cannot be subject to reconsideration for five years.
Those challenges, called requests for reconsideration, often include books some consider pornographic or obscene because of content related to LGBTQ issues, sexuality, gender, puberty and reproduction.
This Star Tribune Editorial Board stands firmly for freedom of expression. As argued in a previous editorial, while some challenges to books may be offered in the name of protecting children, they are often part of a larger agenda to limit freedom of speech through book bans.
Minnesota has traditionally been a state in which the right to express even controversial viewpoints has been valued. But even in this state, challenges to freedom of expression have been on the rise.
According to Karen Pundsack, executive director of the Great River Regional Library system, this past year has seen an unprecedented increase in the number of challenges the board has received, and it hadn't received an appeal to a decision in the previous two decades.
"It's just exploded," she told the Star Tribune. "And I think part of it is that national attention because some of the forms we've been receiving are obviously working from the same talking points."
Among the titles that have been questioned in St. Cloud are "It's Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, Gender, and Sexual Health" and "Gender Queer: A Memoir," Pundsack told an editorial writer.
She said the review process, which has always been on the books, was updated to try to help the community understand the range of concerns about books. Pundsack added that some of the issues discussed were very polarizing, prompting people to speak in absolutes. The hope with the appeal process is that members of the community will "take a step back and listen to each other."
Minnesota Library Association President Julia Carlis told an editorial writer this summer that "There's still a lot of areas in the state where challenges to books are being made."
The Carver County Library Board made the right call in September by unanimously deciding to keep "Gender Queer" on shelves following an August challenge. A resident wanted the memoir removed as a young adult title because of sexual content and unsuitability for youth. The book was rated by the respected Common Sense Media website as being suitable in the young adult category.
The central Minnesota regional library's updated review system will, we hope, yield similar reasonable decisions and keep intellectually challenging reading material available to those who seek it.
At the same time, citizens who object to certain books in public libraries should be able to express their views and be heard by library officials. The Great River Regional Library system clearly recognizes their right of expression, too.