Lynette Mejia, a self-described “homeschool parent,” has raised three children in the Lafayette Public Library System in Louisiana.
Until early 2021, “I was the average person sitting around the table complaining about politics,” Mejia said.
Then Mejia discovered something that troubled her: The Lafayette Board of Control, which governs the public library system in Lafayette, had been stacked with “extremely far right activist members” who were laser-focused on dismantling library services for the broader community. The board refused funding for a program about the history of voting rights, attempted to ban books featuring LGBTQ+ content, pushed hard against a Pride display, and attempted to fire a beloved children’s librarian.
“There are certain things that are just intolerable. I watched them deny that voting rights grant. That was a line for me that I was not going to let them cross,” Mejia said.
A far right battle against libraries that started in Lafayette is now unfolding across the state. The extremist movement, led in Louisiana by Michael Lunsford and his Citizens for a New Louisiana, now has full support from the Louisiana state government. At a recent meeting of the St. Tammany Parish Republican Executive Committee, Attorney General Jeff Landry announced his new Protecting Minors Tip Line, encouraging the people of Louisiana to report library workers who engage in “taxpayer-subsidized sexualization of children,” an accusation made in response to collection development and programming related to LGBTQ+ experiences.
But there is another story here, one of organized opposition to extremist forces. After Mejia learned about the censorship efforts in Lafayette, she got active. “At first, it was just friend-of-a-friend type contacts,” she told Truthout. “We’d reach out to someone to see if they wanted to work with us and they’d say, ‘Oh, I know so-and-so,’ and it just moved forward from there.” The first thing the fledgling group did was set up a website for Lafayette Citizens Against Censorship with a contact form to gather information from people who shared their anger at what was happening in Lafayette. “When average people hear what’s going on in their library, they’re outraged, and they want to show up,” says Mejia. The group focused its initial efforts on getting the word out, something Mejia recommends as a first step. “Start social media posts, post on Facebook, reach out.” As an initial ask, Mejia got people to show up to Board of Control meetings where censorship was on the docket. “Get people together to go to those meetings,” she says. “Community members need to come together, stand up, show up, sign in and speak, speak for one another, speak together.”
In neighboring Livingston Parish, middle school librarian Amanda Jones is organizing against the control board and extremists who have targeted her for defending LGBTQ+ books at the Livingston Parish Library. (She is pursuing legal action for defamation of character.) Like Mejia, Jones and other activists set up a website and Facebook presence, working to inform the community about the extremist board and organizing for a loud and large public presence at meetings. And she’s actively building her list. “I go on Facebook and search the name of the parish, the word ‘library,’ and see what posts I can find. Any supportive post, even from two years ago, I zero in on it and message those random strangers,” Jones says. “I ask, ‘Is this still a problem? Are you interested in being in an alliance with us?” She says her hustle comes from being a school librarian. “We’re used to having 20 different problems thrown our way. We triage, we deal with it, we move on to the next one. Maybe it’s all the dealing with little kids, we just know how to get stuff done.”
In St. Tammany, Jeremy J.F. Thompson and Mel Manuel have picked up the mantle. After moving to St. Tammany, the two started Queer North Shore (QNS). It wasn’t an activist formation but a social one. “We work at home, we’re not religious so we don’t go to church, we knew we wouldn’t have any friends,” Manuel told Truthout. “QNS started as a social meetup group, and it mostly still is.” But when the board targeted a Pride display in July 2022, Queer North Shore got political. A few folks in the parish started an anti-censorship Facebook group and an initial organizing meeting drew 15 people. “Not everyone stuck around,” says Thompson, citing communication issues and differences in organizing strategies. “But some of us just ran with stuff.” Thompson set up the St. Tammany Library Alliance website, and he and Manuel started a petition calling for an end to book banning efforts and opposing a proposed accountability board that would review selections. As the signatures rolled in, Thompson and Manuel deployed the petition to draw media attention. “We had something to show them,” says Thompson. Driving attendance at control board hearings has been the focus of this group, too. On December 13, nearly 100 community members showed up to protest book bans. “We had a doctor who dresses like a pirate, ministers, librarians, parents, a woman from Mexico City talking about cultural genocide, Manuel said. “For some, they really believe in the Constitution; for others, it’s ‘I’m queer.’ We had everybody.”
Moving forward, the focus is on building library alliance groups in each parish to match the plans of the far right Citizens for a New Louisiana. Jones and her team have set up an online clearinghouse and an initial query to public libraries in every parish yielded five bites in a week, says Jones. The work is hampered by fear and funding. The right has deep pockets that, so far, pro-library activists can’t match. “This work is fulfilling and gives you a great sense of purpose,” says Thompson. “But right now, it takes more time than my job.” For extremists like Lunsford and others, organizing against the library is their entire job.
Extremists aren’t just attacking the books — they’re attacking librarians, too. In St. Tammany, the library director, this year’s Louisiana Library Association Library Director of the Year, has been subject to virulent online attacks and a FOIA request for her personal correspondence. “One person I reached out to about starting an alliance said, ‘Don’t use my name, don’t tell anyone we talked,’” says Jones. Librarians have been doxxed, fired and accused of all manner of child sex crimes, all of it chilling their public opposition. “I don’t know how to connect people who are afraid to connect,” says Jones.
“These people come into our communities and say the librarians are peddling porn. Get out of here! They teach our story times!” Mejia says. And where Lunsford relies on a hardcore group of far right extremists, the movement to support libraries casts a much larger net. “We are organized and we are organizing, conservative and progressive, because censorship hurts all of us.”
Mejia sees hope in the fact that library supporters are a clear majority, crowding out extremists at board meetings in Livingston, Lafayette and St. Tammany. “They have the money, but we have the numbers.”
Note: A previous version of this article stated that the Lafayette Board of Control attempted to ban books featuring BIPOC main and secondary characters. This has been corrected to indicate that they attempted to ban books with LGBTQ+ content.
We need your help to propel Truthout into the new year
As we look toward the new year, we’re well aware of the obstacles that lie in the path to justice. But here at Truthout, we are encouraged and emboldened by the courage of people worldwide working to move us all forward — people like you.
If you haven’t yet made your end-of-year donation to support our work, this is the perfect moment to do so: Our year-end fundraising drive is happening now, and we must raise $150,000 by the end of December.
Will you stand up for truly independent, honest journalism by making a contribution in the amount that’s right for you? It only takes a few seconds to donate by card, Apple Pay, Google Pay, PayPal, or Venmo — we even accept donations of cryptocurrency and stock! Just click the red button below.