A child reads a book in a library. (Getty Images)
The St. Tammany Parish Library Board is weighing how to best restructure library policy to deal with a crush of materials challenges under a new law that seeks to restrict minors’ access to material it defines as sexually explicit.
At a special board meeting Thursday, library officials discussed changes to their challenged materials process. St. Tammany Parish has been among the venues for a series of high-profile fights over library content, with conservative activists filing challenges to more than 100 titles, often seeking to have the items removed from the library.
The St. Tammany board is slowly working its way through over 150 book challenges, a few titles at a time. In the meantime, challenged titles remain behind the circulation desk, available to check out only upon request.
Anticipating the effect of Senate Bill 7, a bill backed by Republican Party-endorsed gubernatorial candidate Attorney General Jeff Landry and signed into law by Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards, the board is being pulled in two directions: respecting the law and managing the library in a realistic manner.
Each challenge costs the St. Tammany library system about $400 and dozens of man-hours, according to a document detailing proposed policy changes. Additional costs often arise, such as purchasing a dummy book to replace the item on the shelf, carts to hold challenged books behind the circulation desk and metered book subscriptions on digital materials services.
It’s the time consideration that poses the biggest challenge. In the 11 months since it received its first challenge, St. Tammany’s library has worked its way through just 11 titles, taking up a small handful of titles each month. The reconsideration process requires each item to be read or watched in its entirety, a task that must be completed on top of staff’s existing duties.
That snail’s pace has kept many titles – most of which touch on LGBTQ+ themes – unavailable for regular browsing for months on end, which has drawn the ire of First Amendment advocates.
“The Board’s policy of holding challenged works behind the circulation desk pending review
violates the Constitution because it removes protected works from the shelves,” Katie Schwartzmann, director of Tulane’s First Amendment Law Clinic wrote in a letter to the board. “It provides a presumption in favor of censoring books, when actually the presumption should be that creative works are protected from government censorship except in extraordinarily rare circumstances.”
“Federal courts have held that stigmatizing controversial books by hiding them behind counters or removing them from circulation is a First Amendment violation,” she added.
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How to fix it?
The board is weighing a number of policy changes to address the onslaught of challenges.
One proposed change would allow individual patrons to submit just five challenges per year. This would curb the impact that activist groups such as the St. Tammany Parish Library Accountability Project have. Connie Phillips, one of the organizers of the group, is personally responsible for dozens of challenges.
“There must be reasonable limits on the amount of complaints that one citizen can submit,” Cynthia Weatherly said during the public comment period of Thursday’s meeting. “I could take the week off of work and digitally submit enough complaints to sequester the entire library.”
The board is also considering policies that would allow it to throw out challenges without reviewing them. Board members said the library had received challenges under obviously fake names —including Guy Fawkes and Mickey Mouse — and would like to institute a policy to reject fraudulent challenges.
A provision of the new law, filed by Sen. Heather Cloud, R-Turkey Creek, only allows parish residents to file challenges. If the library is unable to verify that the complainant is a resident, the law would allow the challenge to be tossed.
Statements of concern that seek to restrict children’s access to materials only available in the adult section could also be subject to dismissal. Several challenges received have complained that books categorized as adults are inappropriate for children, despite the books not being housed in the children’s section.
The St. Tammany board is also considering a policy that would allow it to toss all challenges submitted on the basis of the material violating Louisiana criminal law pertaining to sale of material harmful to minors.
It’s the library’s opinion that no items in its collection violate the law, which does not actually apply to libraries, criminal law experts say.
But the library’s policy that decisions on statements of concern be handled by staff, rather than by the board itself, may put it in conflict with Cloud’s law. It requires the library board to make decisions on challenges on the basis titles might include sexually explicit material, which is broadly defined in the text of the law, by a vote in an open meeting.
The law gives the board the power to decide whether the item actually does contain sexually explicit material, meaning members have to take up the item regardless of whether it actually contains sexually explicit material.
That provision could bog down the board, which has received statements of concern alleging that age-appropriate children’s books with LGBTQ+ themes are sexually explicit.
The board did not take any action Thursday but could make a decision at its regularly scheduled July 24 meeting, when it is also likely to take up additional book challenges.
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Editor’s note: The Tulane First Amendment Clinic has provided services for the Louisiana Illuminator.
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