When a Howard County chapter of Moms for Liberty wanted to learn how to remove books from schools, they were met with a swarm of protesters sporting rainbow colors and signs looking to send the message that such actions are not welcome in their district.

The conservative parents’ group met Monday night at Howard’s Central Branch library in Columbia to brainstorm how they could get books they deemed inappropriate out of their children’s school libraries. Their guest speaker for the evening was Jessica Garland, who led a successful book-removal campaign in Carroll County. The Howard chapter wanted the playbook.

The chair of the chapter, Lisa Geraghty, knew protesters were coming, but anticipated only a few dozen. However, the meeting room was flooded with protesters in the seats, on the floor and standing along the walls. Geraghty and Garland were heckled throughout their speeches and a librarian warned the audience not to yell during the presentation.

At least an hour before the meeting, protesters crowded the library’s entryway sporting colored leis, flags and signs that read “books not bigots” and “only fascists ban books.”

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Protestors gather outside of the Central Branch of Howard County Public Library in Columbia on Monday, Feb. 26, 2024. Inside the library, the Howard County branch of Moms for Liberty prepares to hold a meeting to discuss how to approach removing books that might be seen as sexually explicit in the Howard County Public School district. (Sam Mallon/for the Baltimore Banner)

Jonathan Tuttle of Columbia, who was clad in a rainbow Roman soldier helmet and gear with a rainbow cape and referred to himself as Rainbow Spartacus, was critical of the books Moms for Liberty is trying to remove.

“They’re claiming it’s [the books] pornographic, but it isn’t,” he said. “It’s really teaching about alternate gender identities. If kids, if they don’t have that reinforcement, they get depressed, they can become suicidal and it’s totally needless.”

Tuttle said a way to prevent that is by having representation in schools.

Fellow protester Suzy Gerb echoed the same sentiments, but added that it’s also important for nonqueer kids to learn about their classmates “because everybody deserves to be understood.”

The Columbia resident also noted the irony of the event being held at a library.

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“The place that stands for free expression and free learning is the place that they’re holding their meeting,” Gerb said.

Christie Lassen, spokesperson for the Howard County Library System, told The Banner via email that Moms for Liberty had reserved the meeting room at the Central Branch, which the library system’s policy allows, but “use of library meeting rooms does not constitute HCLS endorsement of the users or their beliefs. As public libraries, it is our role and responsibility to provide space for community conversations, and no one may be excluded based on beliefs, points of view, or affiliation of the sponsors or participants.”

Lassen said the system supports the First Amendment and the freedom to read.

In Carroll County, Moms for Liberty members challenged more than 50 books they said were “sexually explicit.” It prompted the superintendent to remove them all from the shelves until a review process was complete, and led to Carroll’s school board tightening its library and textbook selection policy.

Howard County Public School System’s board members, however, have no plans to entertain any similar campaigns, according to the board chair. Instead, they’ll rely on their librarians and existing book selection processes.

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That doesn’t bother Geraghty. Her group already knows the board’s position, and she won’t let it impact their campaign, she said. The protesters aren’t a bother to her, either. She’s used to them showing up at meetings and they’ve often been respectful and peaceful.

But it was a different story on Monday. Protesters interrupted, called out questions and voiced their opposition throughout the 1 1/2-hour meeting as Moms for Liberty members tried shushing them. Geraghty, who started her remarks by explaining what Moms for Liberty is, was met with giggles by people in the audience when she said the group is nonpartisan and nonpolitical. Her voice was drowned out by the crowd when she said, “We equate social justice ideologies to a religion.”

Garland spent the rest of the meeting explaining how Carroll County’s book removal campaign worked. She was often interrupted by heckles and jeers.

“We did not target homosexuals, we did not target heterosexuals, we did not target trans,” Garland said, adding that they only removed sexually explicit books.

When she took questions at the end, one woman said, “I was 4 years old when I was first sexually assaulted and wrote about it. Why do you think it’s OK to take my voice away?”

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The audience cheered as Garland tried to explain that was not what she was trying to do.

Carroll’s vice chapter chair pushed back on the audience while sticking to her talking points. At one point, she told the audience “you are the abnormal ones” for letting their kids read sexually explicit content. The room erupted in dissent.

The plan for the Monday meeting was for Moms for Liberty to hear what Garland had to say, then take those notes to an upcoming book committee meeting later this week, Geraghty said. She didn’t want to share the list of books the group plans to challenge just yet, but said Maia Kobabe’s “Gender Queer: A Memoir” is one of them. The Howard County chapter will first target books in high schools that, she said, amount to “pornography,” then challenge the books that talk about gender and sexuality.

Fifth grader Nina Yukich was reading “Gender Queer” for the third time outside the library before the meeting. She said she doesn’t want it, or any book, to be removed.

“They kind of teach you things,” she said. “Some books, like fiction books, let you kind of imagine things while nonfiction books can teach you things that you might not have learned about.”

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Jackson Kagey, a sixth grader, held a sign said that said, “These books belong, like the people in them.” He told The Banner that “banning these books is wrong because we’re all human.”

Another young person in the audience, Delilah Oppenheimer, said she likes reading books about Black Lives Matter and animals.

“I’m shocked that they say we should ban books that have Black Lives Matter in them,” the second-grader said.

As book removals become common in schools around the nation and the state, lawmakers in Maryland’s General Assembly have introduced legislation that would create a state standard for libraries that receive state funding, including those in schools. “A library should not prohibit or remove material from its catalogue because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval,” the bill says.

Moms for Liberty, a conservative parent nonprofit, has been criticized for targeting books by LGBTQ authors and authors of color. Geraghty says those critics are creating a false narrative and the group’s only focus is sexually explicit content.

“The left just likes to make things up,” she said. “If you don’t believe in their ideology, then you are wrong and a bigot.”

Her Moms for Liberty chapter is critical of the Howard County Public School System embracing what Geraghty calls “social justice ideology.” It’s why she pulled her daughter out of the school system five weeks ago.

“You walk into a school and see 50 pride flags,” she said. “It’s way over the top.”

She said Moms for Liberty wants to bring public attention to these issues in Howard County schools and inspire people to run for school boards or the state legislature.

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