Critics say bill to restrict library materials is a solution in search of a problem
Sen. Heather Cloud, R-Turkey Creek, speaks about a bill she introduced to restrict minors’ access to certain library materials. Rep. Julie Emerson, R-Carencro, center, plans to introduce a similar bill. Attorney General Jeff Landry, right, is supporting both bills. (Photo by Remi Tallo)
A bill the Louisiana Legislature will consider seeks to restrict minors’ access to certain library materials. Critics are concerned the proposal will violate the First Amendment and weaponize the state board that approves funding for library construction projects.
Senate Bill 7, sponsored by Sen. Heather Cloud, R-Turkey Creek, would require libraries to set up a card system that would allow parents or guardians to designate whether their children are allowed to check out certain materials. The bill would also set new standards for material reviews that would give appointed local library boards the final say on what is sexually explicit, rather than libraries.
The bill has the support of Attorney General Jeff Landry, the current Republican frontrunner for this fall’s governor’s race.
Cloud’s bill also sets out financial penalties for libraries that do not comply. It forbids the State Bond Commission from approving the financial packages for any construction projects that would benefit a noncompliant library. The proposal would also allow, but not require, local governments to withhold funding from libraries.
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Katie Schwartzmann, director of Tulane’s First Amendment Law Clinic, laid out several concerns with the bill in an email to the Illuminator.
“This bill addresses a problem that does not exist,” Schwartzmann said. “Our state obscenity and material harmful to minors laws already protect children from inappropriate sexual content.”
Schwartzmann pointed out the bill does not include any guidance for preserving constitutionally protected material, which gives unelected volunteer appointees the role of deciding what information their community can access.
It’s about limiting the scope of information and literature that’s available to the public.
– Katie Schwartzmann, director of Tulane's First Amendment Law Clinic
“In Louisiana, censors have tried to ban books that even mention same-sex relationships and sexual identity,” Schwartzmann said. “This bill invites more of that and provides a process for government actors to decide what ideas can be in our library books without limits.”
Schwartzmann said forcing public employees to make content-based decisions about the free exchange of ideas with no guidance will lead to unconstitutional discrimination.
To illustrate her point, Schwartzmann pointed out that, at face value, the bill could remove the Bible, which contains passages that describe explicit sexual activity, rape, incest and abortion, from libraries.
“This bill is not about what it purports to be,” Schwartzmann said. “It does not simply regulate obscene materials to children. If a book is obscene, it already can be removed. It’s about limiting the scope of information and literature that’s available to the public.”
In a statement, the Louisiana Library Association also raised concerns about the constitutional implications of Cloud’s bill.
“Any efforts by groups or individuals to manipulate library collections towards a particular viewpoint will always be resisted by libraries,” the statement said. “This is our long-standing defense of the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment. When it becomes clear that efforts are being made to dehumanize a particular portion of the population by stigmatizing their voices or restricting access to information or ideas, the library and its supporters will always protect the basic human and civil rights of the community it serves.”
Landry has challenged criticisms that he is violating the First Amendment.
“Nowhere in this report, we call for censoring or banning of books. This is about what’s appropriate for children,” Landry said at a Tuesday press conference on the topic.
Cloud’s bill includes a big stick to keep libraries in line. Forbidding the State Bond Commission from taking up any matters that benefit noncompliant libraries could mean their construction projects could be denied.
This wouldn’t be the first time that the Bond Commission has been used to punish a locality for a political position the state didn’t like.
After Roe v. Wade was overturned in June 2022, the State Bond Commission withheld its approval for funding a critical New Orleans project after the city adopted a resolution asking city entities not to enforce the state’s abortion ban. Landry led the charge to hold back the money and had support from Republican lawmakers on the commission.
At the time, Treasurer John Schroder, the commission’s chairman who is also running for governor, criticized Landry’s efforts to politicize the commission’s work.
“We’re playing politics with this. I don’t like it,” Schroder said at a commission meeting “This is a bad, bad road to get on.”
Months later, the Bond Commission approved the allocation with Landry remaining a holdout.
The Illuminator reached Schroder by email and asked if he would have a similar response to this effort to insert politics into Bond Commission decisions.
“Politics aside, if the Legislature passes a law and the governor signs it then, of course, I will abide by it,” he said. “That’s upholding the oath I swore as a public official.”
New Orleans City Council President JP Morrell, who served on the Bond Commission during his time as a legislator, argued that not only is it morally wrong for its members to take a political stand, it’s also fiscally irresponsible.
“When the Bond Commission kind of weighs in to try and blackmail jurisdictions into adopting their social causes and social positions, in order to do something that should just be a transaction that is backed with the full faith and credit of the state but funded by local government, it’s really problematic,” Morrell said.
“Markets across the country and internationally pay attention to when Louisiana weaponizes the Bond Commission for social crusades,” Morrell said, “and what it does is it makes our markets seem volatile.”
Morrell said the Bond Commission used to be a neutral space and Republicans are setting a bad precedent by politicizing its work. This could come back to bite them if the political pendulum swings the other way, he added
Editor’s note: The Tulane First Amendment Law Clinic provides legal advice to the Louisiana Illuminator
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