AG Jeff Landry asked to weigh in on Rapides library policy

His opinion is not binding law; issue would likely involve federal court

By: - January 19, 2023 3:00 pm
Remi Tallo holds up a sign that reads "Jesus wore a dress, too" as a supporter of a proposal to remove content deemed unsuitable for children and teens is discussed at the Rapides Library Board Control meeting

Remi Tallo holds up a sign that reads “Jesus wore a dress too!” as a Fran Bradshaw voices her support for a proposal to remove content deemed unsuitable for children and teens from the Rapides Parish Library system. Rapides Library Board of Control member Morris Taft Thomas, seated, listens as Bradshaw speaks at the Jan. 17, 2023, board meeting. (Photo by Frances Madeson)

ALEXANDRIA – The board with oversight of the Rapides Parish Library is asking Attorney General Jeff Landry to weigh in on their attempt to remove books deemed inappropriate for children and teens.

The Rapides Library Board of Control met Tuesday to consider the new policy. Following the advice from the parish attorney, members chose not to vote on the matter and instead seek Landry’s opinion.

The proposal calls for the removal of material on sexual orientation and gender identity from the public library systems collections for children up to age 17. It would also prohibit displays and events the board considers unacceptable.

Library board member James Morgan, a Spanish language instructor at Alexandria’s Country Day School, authored the measure in December. Despite passionate opposition and over 1,100 petition signatures against his proposal, Morgan remains unswayed.

The proposal states: [Children and teen] collections shall not include materials containing obscenity, sexual content (including content regarding sexual orientation and gender identity), or any other material that is unsuitable for the children and teen collections. Library events and displays for children and teens shall be held to the same standard.”

Parish attorney Greg Jones advised that Morgan’s amendment would not likely pass constitutional muster as written because courts conduct “a strict scrutiny review” to determine if a proposed law or policy is “narrowly constructed as written to accomplish the purpose, yet does not tread on the constitutional rights of other people…”

Its my opinion that there is a significant risk that it would be deemed unconstitutional,” Jones said.

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That opinion is shared by constitutional law experts at Tulane’s First Amendment Law Clinic. In a Dec. 12 letter to the board, clinic director Katie Schwartzmann was direct.

“This language is unconstitutional,” Schwartzmann wrote. “As courts have long held, a crucial part of the First Amendment is the right to receive information–a right held by children and teens… There is no government interest in preventing children and young adults from simply reading books that an official does not like.”

Nonetheless, Jones called it a “hot topic issue… already on the radar of the chief legal officer in the state of Louisiana, [Landry]” and likely to be taken up in the state legislature.

Landry has established a tip line to report library and school personnel for instance of “taxpayer-subsidized sexualization of children.”

Librarian fears AG Landry’s tip line will create ‘weird witch hunt’

The attorney general’s opinion on Rapides’ proposed library policy would carry little legal weight, as issues concerning the U.S. Constitution are determined in federal court, not at the state level. Landry’s advice, if he offers it, is not legally binding. Jones said it could help the board feel more comfortable.

Library board president Le’Anza Jordan said she is concerned the proposal’s vagueness could impact patrons. She offered several examples: Could books for toddlers about potty training, for preteens about pregnancy and childbearing or for teens seeking information on animal husbandry be construed as “sexual content” and subject to exclusion?

“This area is complicated,” Jordan said to Morgan, “and actually you should have gone to a committee before the amendment was presented so it could have been vetted.”

She also wanted to know whether Morgan had ever tested the library’s current policy by completing the formal complaint about an unsuitable book he told the board his 4-year-old found in the children’s section last spring.

“Maybe it’s in my junk folder. I don’t know,” Morgan said.

Rapides Library Board of Control member James Morgan.
Rapides Library Board of Control member James Morgan. (Photo by Frances Madeson)

The book Morgan singled out was “Pride Puppy,” according to KALB-TV, “an alphabet book about a family searching for their missing dog at a pride parade, while members of the LGBTQ+ community help in the search along the way.”

Morgan said he didn’t ask for the book to be removed from the library, just relocated from the children’s section.

“Your amendment does not talk about moving it,” Jordan replied.

The public comment period preceding the board’s deliberation lasted over two and a half hours. Commenters in favor of Morgan’s amendment doubled the opposed, the mirror opposite of December’s meeting. Proponents included more than a half dozen Baptist preachers and church leaders, some of whom brandished Bibles as they spoke.

“I want to remind y’all, that this is not church, this is a public library,” said Natalie Elethorp, a transgender woman who is northeast  coordinator for Louisiana Trans Advocates. “Yes, the majority of people in the United States are Christian, but there are Christian people in the United States who oppose this. I, for one.”

“Some here in this library want to sexualize our kids,” said one commenter. Another called the librarians “peddlers of pornography.”

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Maria Losavio, a local attorney and advocate for foster children, reminded the board that the topic of pornography is not addressed in Morgan’s proposal.

“Please don’t get sidetracked about pornography,” Losavio said. “Nowhere in this proposed amendment does the word pornography even exist. It is a distraction. It is a ruse.”

Morgan was unable to respond substantively to board members’ questions about his amendment. When asked what it adds to the currently existing policy, which already has a mechanism for patrons’ objections, he didn’t offer a direct response.

“I think we have a lot of people here that validates that there’s a need for this,” Morgan said, without providing details.

“The devil’s in the details,” Losavio told the Illuminator after the meeting, “and there are very little details in this amendment as proposed.”

 Disclosure: The Tulane First Amendment Law Clinic provides legal advice to the Louisiana Illuminator.

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Frances Madeson
Frances Madeson

Frances Madeson is a Central Louisiana-based freelance reporter with a special interest in accountability journalism.

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