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Iris Halpern: A CWBA Member Battling Discrimination and Championing the First Amendment



If you get your news from the web, digital media, newspapers, cable, or good old National Public Radio, you may have heard that book banning is back again. The American Library Association reported a preliminary 20% increase in book challenges between 2023 and 2022, a year in which the country already witnessed a 38% increase in challenges from the year before.[i] Pen America,[ii] an organization that supports and protects First Amendment rights for writers, journalists and other communicators, reported that more than 3,300 books were banned in the 2022- 2023 school year. This was a 33% increase from the past school year; the highest number of book bans since the American Library Association began compiling data about censorship in libraries more than 20 years ago. Pen America notes that many challenges come from members of national or local affiliate organizations pushing for book bans or from politicized state legislatures, and that, although oftentimes coached in the language of protecting minors from explicit or pornographic sexual content, such content frequently has little to do with the real reason for the challenge. Many targets of book banning include titles old and new.[iii] They concern books about the LBGTQ community, African-American, Hispanic, Asian, or Native peoples, their voices, experiences, stories, history, and/or contemporary analysis of modern society. The temperature of the crusade to ostensibly “save the children” has been rising. There was a bomb threat made against the Boston Public Library. So, readers may know that there are book bans in Texas, Florida, Missouri, Utah, and South Carolina, but were you aware of the attempts and the fight against such censorship here in Colorado?


CWBA member, Iris Halpern and her firm Rathod/Mohamedbhai LLC are fighting the fight on the front line. Iris Halpern is a lawyer licensed to practice here in Colorado since 2008. Her career has been in legal services, she worked at the Denver Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) for seven and a half years and does 100% Plaintiff’s civil rights advocacy, employment discrimination, and wage and hour cases. Upon observing the book ban surge, she noticed a wave of hate and identified a political scheme of passing laws in state legislatures suppressing the teaching of inequality or advocating against discrimination against people of color, marginalized people, LBGTQ+ people and people who can be “otherized.” In the past 2 to 3 years there has been a concerted backlash against the progress of civil rights, waged at least in part through attacks on librarians and educators. But Iris has moved to protect those librarians and educators who are the targets.


Brooky Parks was terminated from a library in Erie, Colorado based on her objections to cancelling programing for LBTGQ+ teens and youth of color. Brooky had a “Read Woke Book Club” and a LBGTQ+ support group that the library board objected to and instructed her to cancel. In 2021 the High Plains Library District adopted new policies and programing at its branches in northern Colorado. Programs could not “persuade participants to a particular point of view” or be “intentionally inflammatory.” No guardrails were in place to ensure that such a vague, subjective policy, which was adopted during the George Floyd protests by the library, was not manipulated or exploited to perpetuate viewpoint/content censorship or enforced in a discriminatory fashion. This led to the cancellation of her educational programing. When Brooky pushed back, she was fired.


In February of 2022, Brooky filed a discrimination suit against the library district with the Colorado Civil Rights Division (“CCRD”) and the EEOC. The CCRD issued a reasonable cause finding, determining that her charge of discrimination and retaliation were valid. The Attorney General’s Office filed an action on behalf of Brooky, in which Iris intervened. Recently the lawsuit settled. Brooky received $250,000 for the settlement of her claim. As part of the settlement, the library district also was required to adopt new programing policies, which, after consultation with the ALA about best practices, enshrined a commitment to encouraging programming that is more “inclusive and diverse,” limited subjective preferences in programming, and required all programming decisions to be subject to an objective appeal and review process which incorporated district-wide librarian feedback. Certain managers at the library district are also required to undergo training on the state’s antidiscrimination laws, the district must report all complaints of employment discrimination to the CCRD for the next three years, and other injunctive and equitable relief. However, the library district has yet to remove the old policy, and discussions resume on rescinding that policy.


In Wyoming, Terri Leslie was the Director and a librarian at the Campbell County Public Library System in Gillette, Wyoming. After a career spanning almost two decades, Terri was also fired following two years of escalating harassment and threats after she refused to discriminate against the LBGTQ+ community and remove books from the Campbell County Library. In September of 2021 Hugh and Sue Bennett filed a criminal complaint against her for distributing obscene materials to the children at the library and asked that she be arrested. Last month, Iris Halpern filed an EEOC charge against several government entities and a federal lawsuit against the Bennetts on Terri’s behalf seeking damages and injunctive relief, including against the Campbell County Commissioners, the Campbell County Public Library Board, and Hugh and Sue Bennett and their son Kevin Bennett for defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, civil conspiracy, conspiracy to deprive her of her civil rights.


She filed individual claims against the Bennetts under the Ku Klux Klan Act. Iris also filed an EEOC charge and will be bringing a First Amendment and discrimination lawsuit against the Llano County Public Library System in Texas if the charge does not resolve pre-litigation. This year, librarian and branch director Suzette Baker made national press when the library system fired her for flatly refusing to remove a number of books that contained racial and LGBTQ+ themes, amongst other books. Subsequently, a federal district court judge issued an injunction ordering the books returned to the shelves, holding that the bans violated the First Amendment and were discriminatory in nature. In response, the library system almost voted to completely shutter its doors, rather than return the books to the shelves, although ultimately voted to stay open on a split vote.


Iris Halpern and her firm were also directly involved in the representation of Corey Wise in Douglas County. He was the superintendent of the Douglas County School District and became the target of certain school board members when they were unhappy with his advocacy of diversity, equity, and inclusion policies and programming, and for advocating against a recent Douglas County Board of Health prohibition on mask mandates at schools following disintegration of the Tri-County Health Department. Douglas County was unhappy with the mask mandates from Tri-County Health Department and broke its ties with it creating its own health department. When it dropped the mask mandates, teachers called in sick en masse, forcing the schools to close. There were protests outside the district office in Castle Rock. A day later the school board voted to fire Corey Wise. The Douglas County Commissioners also violated the open meetings law and refused to provide documents pursuant to the Colorado Open Records Act. Iris Halpern filed a discrimination charge with CCRD and EEOC on Corey Wise’s behalf to address these issues. In April of 2023 this lawsuit was settled for $832,000 before litigation. As Iris said when interviewed by Colorado Public Radio “We have to think about this settlement as sending a message not only to Douglas County, that it should be prioritizing education in students, but to other countries across the county where this might be happening, where education has become politicized, has been made divisive by an agenda that seeks to vilify minorities and the people who have the least support and power historically within these systems.”[iv]


Iris Halpern, a lawyer who uses her law degree to champion the First Amendment, protect the rights of the marginalized and those who face employment discrimination, harassment and even the threat of criminal prosecution based on their refusal to violate or discriminate against others. A long- time member of the CWBA and a fearless defender of the First Amendment and civil rights. Thank you, Iris, for your trailblazing advocacy in this area.

 

[i] https://www.ala.org/advocacy/bbooks/book-ban-data [ii] PEN America is an advocacy organization formed in 1922. Its mission includes work on educational censorship, press freedom, the safety of journalists, campus free speech, online harassment, artistic freedom and support to regions of the world with challenges to freedom of expression. One of its projects is the Index of School Book Bans. “Free Expression Focus Issues”, pen.org. PEN America, December 15, 2017. [iii] Titles such as The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie; The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison, Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White, Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank, The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, and Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe. PEN America, Index of School Book Bans. [iv] Douglas CountySchool District settleswith ousted superintendent Corey Wise over complaint. Brundin, Jenny, Colorado Public Radio (April 17, 2023).

 

Judge Elizabeth Weishaupl is a mediator / arbitrator / special master / appointed judge at JAMS. She was a District Court Judge in Colorado serving in all dockets for nearly 15 years. Prior to her appointment on the bench, she was an Assistant United States Attorney, a First Assistant Attorney General for the State of Colorado's Attorney General's Office, and a litigation associate in private practice. Judge Weishaupl has been a member of the CWBA for 33 years, the CBA, the International Association of Women Judges, the National Women's Judges Association, and teaches trial advocacy at the National Institute of Trial Advocacy. She has also taught as an adjunct at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, and the National Advocacy Center for the Department of Justice.

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