Jennifer Cooper holds up signs at the Tuesday, March 21, 2023, meeting of the Rapides Parish Library Board of Control. Attorney General Jeff Landry declined to provide an opinion on a change the board is considering to policy for its children’s section. (Photo by Frances Madeson)
ALEXANDRIA —Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry has declined to weigh in on the constitutionality of an amendment to the Rapides Parish Library’s collection development policy, as requested in January. He offered no reason in his office’s March 2, 2023, letter to the parish’s Library Board of Control.
At issue is a policy change the Rapides Library Control Board considered in January. Board member James Morgan suggested the amendment after his 4-year-old son came across a copy of “” in the children’s section of the library. It’s an alphabet book that tells the story of a family losing then finding their puppy after it runs off the leash at a Pride parade.
Morgan, who the Rapides Police Jury appointed to the board in September, authored the proposed update to the library’s collection development policy. It reads: “[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.”
Library board counsel Greg Jones, experts at the Tulane First Amendment Law Clinic, and three local attorneys who weighed in during public comments at the December and January board meetings, all cautioned that Morgan’s language was unconstitutional. The parish library and elected leaders would not be able to defend themselves against the exposure to lawsuits to follow if the amendment is adopted , they said.
Tulane law professor Katie Schwartzmann, who directs the First Amendment Law Clinic, confirmed that position in an email to the Illuminator. The clinic also provides guidance to the Illuminator.
“It’s unfortunate that Attorney General Landry chose not to provide the guidance requested by Rapides Library Board of Control,” Schwartzmann said. “Rapides’ proposed book ban would be unconstitutional, but the Attorney General chose not to advise them as such. Louisianians (and local government bodies) need to be able to rely upon Landry’s office to provide clear-eyed legal guidance.”
The proper guidance would be to advise the library board that its proposed restrictions on books would violate the U.S. Constitution, she said. Landry has acknowledged previously that the First Amendment is broad and protects controversial books, even sexual content, Schwartzmann added.
“Louisiana already has laws that criminalize obscenity and material harmful to minors,” she said. “If officials reach beyond those limits, they will be censoring protected speech – and violating the Constitution.”
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Landry established a “Protecting Minors” tip line last year for the public to report the “taxpayer-subsidized sexualization of children” at libraries. Through a public records request, the Illuminator reporter the line was flooded with spam complaints.
At the January library board meeting, president Le’Anza Jordan lamented that the troublesome verbiage had not been vetted by a board committee. Her comments came after hours of public comments from religious leaders and parents decrying nonexistent “pornography” in the children’s section.
At that meeting, in addition to seeking permission to contact the attorney general’s office on the board’s behalf, Jones suggested the members consider creating a board Policies and Reconsideration Committee. It could be dually charged with scrutinizing proposed amendments for lawfulness and redundancy, and it could serve as another layer in the library’s review procedures for reconsideration of material patrons find objectionable.
Morgan, in an email to the Illuminator at the time, stood behind his proposed changes.
“I continue to believe that it is practical, legal and consistent with our current policy, and I think it would be a great addition to our library’s development policy,” he said.
The board was to consider the new committee at Tuesday’s meeting, but it was tabled until after the Louisiana Legislature’s session in case relevant state policy is enacted. In his letter, Landry suggested the board monitor the session for bills enforcing library restrictions. Lawmakers will convene April 10 and must adjourn no later than June 8.
Sen. Heather Cloud, R-Turkey Creek, and Rep. Julie Emerson, R-Carenco, have pre-filed bills to restrict materials available to minors at libraries.
Jones advised it could be July before any legislation reaches the governor’s desk, where his options include a veto.
Morgan stunned attendees at Tuesday’s library board meeting when he asked for a copy of its reconsideration procedures, saying he had never seen it.
Library patron Loren Ryland, who has attended and spoken at library board meetings since December, told the Illuminator after the meeting her community’s libraries are under attack by members of its board.
“The only thing that I can consider, and I’ve thought about this a lot, is that it seems like their ultimate goal is to gut the library from the inside,” Ryland said.
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