LGBTQ book restrictions get dog-eared in Livingston Parish

Library board rejects censorship attempt by Parish Council

By: - September 21, 2022 9:55 am

Livingston Parish Library Control Board member Erin Sandefur presses for restrictions on books with LGBTQ content on Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2022. (Photo credit: Wes Muller/Louisiana Illuminator).

LIVINGSTON — A proposal to censor certain books with LGBTQ+ content at the Livingston Parish Library stalled Tuesday night after the library’s board members rejected the move. They deemed the effort an attempt to circumvent their policies and procedures, though the matter could continue indefinitely as conservative activists become familiar with the system.  

Livingston Parish Library Board of Control member Erin Sandefur first ignited the controversy in July when she presented a list of titles she deemed inappropriate and asked her colleagues to restrict minors’ access to them. 

After the board took no action at the July meeting, Sandefur returned Tuesday with the backing of the Livingston Parish Council. Its members voted unanimously in August to recommend the library board restrict the books to a secure area of the building where library staff can monitor to prevent minors from accessing them unless accompanied by a parent.

Sandefur read a statement from Parish President Layton Ricks recommending the books be restricted. It met resistance from other board members and several Livingston Parish residents at the meeting. 

Board member Ivy Graham, a Denham Springs attorney, told Sandefur the Board of Control doesn’t just vote to remove a book any time someone comes to a meeting with a complaint — even if that someone is the Livingston Parish Council, which appoints library board members.

Graham explained the library has procedures a guest must follow and a form to complete to request censorship of any content on the shelves. A separate review committee, independent from the library board, conducts an extensive review of the complaint, the challenged literature, its publisher, author, critical reviews and a host of other factors, she said. 

“Y’all are asking us to skip steps,” Graham said. “Maybe there is something really, really terrible; maybe there is something really, really great. It can’t be determined if it hasn’t gone through the proper procedures.”

After further discussion, Sandefur proposed a different motion to establish a new three-person panel of board members to assess the review committee and the library’s procedures for reviewing books with sexual content. That motion failed in a 4-2 vote. 

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Lori Callais, a former Democratic candidate for a Livingston Parish-based legislative district, read from a statement prepared by Louisiana Association of School Librarians President Amanda Jones. The statement noted that the complaint did not originate organically from a concerned parent of a child who was actually exposed to or affected by content in any Livingston Parish libraries. 

Rather, the complaint and its list of books came from the same group that is “destroying the Lafayette Parish library System,” she said.

Sandefur interrupted Callais to object to her use of words such as “censorship” to describe the proposal.

“Nobody is trying to ban or censor anything,” Sandefur said. 

Callais said restricting access to books is a form of censorship. 

Speaking in support of the proposal, Denham Springs City Council member Robert Poole quoted from an American Library Association press release, saying “Efforts to censor entire categories of books reflecting certain voices and views shows that the moral panic isn’t about kids, it’s about politics.” The next sentence, which Poole did not recite, states, “Organizations with a political agenda are spreading lists of books they don’t like.” 

Poole said it was the ALA statement that is political.  

“If the author of this [press release] is wrong, my child’s welfare is at stake,” Poole said, adding that the only things otherwise at stake are some books being relocated to an area of the library restricted to minors. 

Resident Clark Forrest repeated the point that the complaint originated from political operatives outside of Livingston Parish.

“Prior to Ms. Sandefur and her out-of-parish friends showing up, had y’all had any complaints about books?” Forrest asked, drawing no replies until Chairman Ronnie Bencaz said the board was not required to answer questions from the public. 

Sandefur, herself, admitted the concern over the books came from a state official whom she declined to name.

Republican State Rep. Valarie Hodges attended the August meeting of the Livingston Parish Council to push for the book censorship resolution. 

Michael Lunsford, a conservative activist who leads the Lafayette-based Citizens for a New Louisiana, led a similar effort to censor books at libraries in Lafayette Parish. He attended the July meeting in Livingston Parish, attempting to cast suspicion on supposed outside political operatives against censorship. 

Lunsford’s efforts mirror book censorship campaigns taking place at public library and school board meetings across the country at the urging of organizations such as Moms for Liberty and Parents Defending Education.

The ALA has documented record levels of book censorship across the country this year with 681 attempts so far, targeting more than 1,600 titles. Most of the works targeted are by minority authors, contain LGBTQ+ themes or approach sex education, history or other subjects from perspectives not shared by white conservative Christians. 

Sandefur’s list of eight books included six titles related to sex education or sexual identity. 

One of the works, “Dating and Sex: A Guide for the 21st Century Teen Boy,” by adolescent therapist Dr. Andrew Smiler, is not in the LGBTQ genre but contains frank and sometimes funny discussions on sex education. He addresses topics such as how to properly use a condom and whether one can masturbate too much. Smiler’s book won several national awards for young adult nonfiction and has high ratings on Amazon and other book retail sites.

In May, a book censorship campaign in Wisconsin targeted several of the same books on the list in Livingston Parish. A similar effort in one Florida county has seen four separate lists of over 150 books targeted for censorship by Moms for Liberty.  

“No one on the right side of history has ever been on the side of censorship or hiding books,” Callais said. 

The book censorship effort is likely to return to Livingston Parish, as well as other jurisdictions across the state, as activist groups fill out the proper forms and file the complaints. Graham said several forms concerning other books began trickling in following news reports on the July meeting. 

The Livingston Parish Library has a Library Bill of Rights published on its website that states libraries should challenge censorship and materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.

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Wesley Muller
Wesley Muller

Wes Muller traces his journalism roots back to 1997 when, at age 13, he built and launched a hyper-local news website for his New Orleans neighborhood. In the years since then, he has freelanced for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans and worked on staff at the Sun Herald in Biloxi, WAFB-9News CBS in Baton Rouge, and the Enterprise-Journal in McComb, Mississippi. He also taught English as an adjunct instructor at Baton Rouge Community College. Among his recognitions are McClatchy's National President's Award, the Associated Press Freedom of Information Award, and the Daniel M. Phillips Freedom of Information Award from the Mississippi Press Association. Muller is an alumnus of Jesuit High School and the University of New Orleans and is a veteran U.S. Army paratrooper. He lives in Louisiana with his wife and two sons.

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