Library board meetings at book challenge capital of the nation settle into predictable chaos 

By: - August 22, 2023 11:38 am

One year after it received its first book challenge, a Louisiana library system that has received more challenges than any other in America has come to a decision on 17 out of over 100 titles under scrutiny. (Getty Images)

MANDEVILLE — One year after it received its first book challenge, a Louisiana library system that has received more challenges than any other in America has come to a decision on 17 out of over 100 titles under scrutiny. 

At a Monday meeting, the St. Tammany Library Board of Control voted to keep two more books on its shelves. Frustrated with the slow pace that has kept dozens of books — mostly those with LGBTQ+ themes — sequestered from the rest of the collection, one patron submitted three more book challenges to titles she described as anti-transgender. 

At this pace, library director Kelly LaRocca predicted it will be three years or longer before it slogs through the mound of book challenges. Each requires a panel of librarians to read the book, discuss the merits of the challenge and formulate a report to the board. This task, heaped on top of librarian’s usual duties, costs the library about $400 per title, according to LaRocca. 

The library has discussed policy changes to lighten the load. One proposal would allow the board to toss out unmerited challenges, like those submitted under false names — Mickey Mouse is purported to have challenged at least one book — or those submitted by people who obviously didn’t read the book. 

One such challenge was discussed Monday. Connie Phillips, an activist with the St. Tammany Library Accountability Project, a far-right group behind the vast majority of the parish’s book challenges, submitted a challenge to “What Are Your Words?: A Book About Pronouns” by Katherine Locke. 

Phillips alleged in her complaint the book, which is an illustrated children’s book, contained multiple instances of profanity and referenced page numbers and plot points that did not exist, indicating she did not read the book. A review of dozens of Phillips’ challenges showed she had copied and pasted the bulk of her objections, alleging each book violated state law on material harmful to minors. 


More of the same

Nearly a year since St. Tammany’s board voted on its first materials challenge, its meetings have settled into a kind of chaotic regularity. 

Library board meetings were once quiet affairs, taken up mostly with discussion of budgets and other administrative matters. That all changed last year when St. Tammany Parish became yet another venue for a national fight over library content that has taken root across Louisiana. 

With 192 challenges filed in 2022, St. Tammany accounts for about 16% of the over 1,200 book challenges filed nationwide last year, a number observers believe is the highest in the U.S. 

The frequent challenges have created a consistently tense setting at St. Tammany library board meetings. 

A couple dozen library supporters, clad in purple shirts bearing “Trust Our Librarians,” arrive early, venting their frustrations with the whole process. They sit mostly on one side of the aisle, while a small handful of activists who want to restrict minors’ access to certain materials, sit across from them. 

The actual challengers to the books are rarely in attendance, although library board policy allows them five minutes to make the case for the book’s removal to the board. 

The book opponents are generally quiet, whispering in clumps of two or three who are often families. That is, until the public comment period starts. 

Inevitably, during the portion of the meeting set aside for patrons to raise their concerns on the books being challenged, raised tensions lead to raised voices. 

Occasionally, local police have to step in to remove an angry attendee, but usually the shouting settles down on its own. 

Such was the case Monday night. A public commenter alleged opponents would not have a problem with the touching and kissing scenes in the young adult novel “Two Boys Kissing” by David Levithan, if the couple involved were straight. 

“Yes, we would!” several patrons shouted. 

Board president Rebecca Taylor banged her gavel, and the room quieted again. 

The excitement has become so predictable that one meeting regular circulated bingo cards with phrases and actions so often observed at meetings. Players could check off squares for a heckler, for police removing an attendee or for somebody referring to a children’s book as porn. 

There were several calls of “Bingo!” throughout the meeting. Winners were treated to a copy of a challenged book and a foam medal in the shape of a millstone, a reference to a book challenger who on more than one occasion insinuated library board members would face the biblical punishment of drowning by millstone if they allowed the books she challenged to remain in the library. 

More to come

The workload in America’s Book Challenge Capital is not letting up anytime soon. 

The St. Tammany library board still has a backlog of over 100 challenged titles to go through, and more challenges are always coming in. Some, like those submitted Monday, are counter-challenges of books favored by conservatives. 

“I’m gonna submit more challenges, and I’m gonna go for Harry Potter and the Bible and that damn hungry caterpillar,” Cynthia Weatherly said as she handed over her three challenges. 

Others are more made in earnest by right-wing activists who want to restrict minors’ access to books they deem too sexual or too violent. 

While the books await a decision, they remain behind the circulation desk where they are available to patrons only upon request. In response to concerns patrons might not know they exist if they cannot freely browse and find them, the library purchased dummy books bearing the books’ information that are placed where the books would normally be. 

Still, the practice, known as “red flagging,” 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. 

LaRocca, who seemed sympathetic to these concerns, said the board is weighing a policy change to allow some books to remain in regular circulation pending review. 

The library is taking the ordeal one day at a time, LaRocca said. 

“I don’t think that we’re worn out or fed up. It is part of our job,” LaRocca said. “Does it mean that it’s easy? Maybe not. But we take it seriously. I think all of our staff takes it seriously.” 

Editor’s note: The Tulane First Amendment Law Clinic provides legal services to the Louisiana Illuminator.


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Piper Hutchinson
Piper Hutchinson

Piper Hutchinson is a reporter for the Louisiana Illuminator. She has covered the Legislature and state government extensively for the LSU Manship News Service and The Reveille, where she was named editor in chief for summer 2022.