More than 100 people gather at the Covington library to discuss challenged library materials during a St. Tammany Library Board of Control meeting in December 2022. (Piper Hutchinson/Louisiana Illuminator)
COVINGTON – More than 100 people packed into a meeting room at the Covington library Tuesday night, eager to weigh in on how the St. Tammany Library Board of Control handles books a local conservative activist group has said are inappropriate for children.
St. Tammany is the latest venue for the fight over library content that is also taking place in Livingston, Rapides and Lafayette parishes. What makes St. Tammany Parish distinct is that its board has been flooded with complaints over specific materials.
The mood was tense as dozens waited in the hallways and outside the building to get into the meeting room, which was immediately filled to capacity. Many who opposed censorship held signs: “Trust Our Librarians” and “We Support Our Librarians.”
“I think that if we remove books that people can identify with, then we’ll distance ourselves from each other more than understand each other,” said Slidell resident Meara McNitt, who stood outside carrying a sign that read “Libraries Are For Everyone.”
Several attendees support the removal of certain books in the library’s collection. Members of the St. Tammany Library Accountability Project, a group whose stated mission is to prevent the sexual exploitation of children, seeks to remove books they consider to be pedophilic and pornographic. They also want to create a separate community advisory board to review library book acquisitions.
“I am here because our kids need to be protected from these books,” Slidell resident Fran Smith said, seated on a bench outside of the meeting room. “These books have pedophilia in them. Do you realize that? I don’t think a lot of people realize that.”
Since Nov. 21, 75 statements of concern have been filed with the St. Tammany Parish Library about items in its collection. By comparison, the Livingston Parish Library received just two from January to November.
The complaints, driven in part by a coordinated campaign, has forced the St. Tammany Library Board of Control to reconsider some policies, including how it reviews and handles challenged books.
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Board changes review policy
The board voted to give itself 120 days to review materials named in complaints, a process that requires a committee to read the book in its entirety and research its quality. It previously had a 45-day review policy. The board also voted to keep challenged material behind the circulation desk pending review and opted to remove the appeal process, which allowed complainants to air their grievances to the entire board in the hope of reversing the decision. The board adopted a new process, by which the review committee will submit its proposal to the board, which will have final approval.
The board considered appeals for statements of concern for two children’s books: “I am Jazz” by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings, a picture book about Jenning’s experience as a transgender child; and “My Rainbow” by Trinity Neal, a picture book about a mom who creates a rainbow wig to help her transgender daughter feel more comfortable. A committee of library staff had already voted against removing the two books.
Diane Bruni challenged both books. She wrote in her complaint that the picture books amounted to sex and gender propaganda, and that all materials on the topic were explicit and inappropriate for minors.
Board members noted that neither books contained sexually explicit content and were not pervasively vulgar. Board member Bill Allin noted that St. Tammany Parish was home to many LGBTQ+ people, and that the library had a responsibility to represent the whole community.
“I love you for who you are, that’s the message of these books,” Allin said. “Isn’t that a service?”
Approximately 30 members of the public lined up to comment on the board’s business, the vast majority speaking in favor of the two books and against censorship in general. The board ultimately upheld the initial decision to keep the books available.
Emily Goldsmith shared their experience of growing up nonbinary bisexual in an evangelical household. Goldsmith had limited access to LGBTQ content and attempted suicide as a teen, they said.
“Just like I could not be turned straight or cis by the conversion therapy I was exposed to at an evangelical church in Louisiana, kids cannot be turned gay or trans if they are straight and cis,” Goldsmith said. “They were not turned gay by a library book. They already were and they always will be.”
Jeff Sims, pastor at Covington Presbyterian Church, also spoke against censorship.
“I don’t think I have a right to say what books should be banned,” Sims said in an interview. “I preach from from my Bible every Sunday that has involved in it murder, incest, rape, and nobody’s asked to ban it. We still learn from it.”
The board also postponed discussion of a resolution to move all graphic novels, fiction and nonfiction for adults and teens, behind the circulation desk.
Elections could be impacted
Those who support the removal of books said the board’s decision has pushed them to take their case to the St. Tammany Parish Council.
“This was sort of expected, sort of not,” David Cougle, an attorney with the St. Tammany Library Accountability Project, said after the meeting. “Our thought was that the parish council is going to try to get them to fix it, and now [members of the Library Board of Control] have said, ‘We’re not going to fix it.’”
Cougle said the Accountability Project will seek a parish ordinance to restrict minors from accessing materials deemed inappropriate. He and several others who spoke before the board referenced a library tax set for a vote next year, saying St. Tammany residents may not support it because of the board’s rulings on challenged books.
Cougle also mentioned that members of the St. Tammany Parish Council, which has yet to respond to the group’s complaints, are also up for re-election in 2023. The group will continue to challenge books and he believes the libraries will be a key election issue, he said.
Anti-censorship advocates say public library collections with books that feature LGBTQ+ themes are important for a diverse and inclusive society. When these books are challenged, young LGBTQ+ people see it as an attack on their identity.
“Every time these news articles hit the press, every time LGBTQ youth hear these headlines and read them and hear that these people are attacking them, and calling them all kinds of vile things, that’s really triggering,” Peyton Rose Michelle, executive director of Louisiana Trans Advocates said in an interview. “I think it’s triggering for me, and I’m an advocate that’s been doing this work for almost a decade.”
McNitt, who described herself as a life-long St. Tammany Parish library patron, said diverse books can help children develop empathy.
“It’s the best way to walk in somebody else’s shoes,” McNitt said in an interview. “I think we need to hear every story.”
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