Opponents and a supporter of restrictions on library content talk before a St. Tammany Parish Council meeting Aug. 30, 2023. (Piper Hutchinson/Louisiana Illuminator)
MANDEVILLE — The St. Tammany Parish Council has waded into the ongoing controversy over the parish library system, inflaming the debate but ultimately taking no action.
The council met in a special meeting Wednesday to discuss a resolution to encourage the parish Library Board of Control to adopt policies required by Act 436, a law authored by Sen. Heather Cloud, R-Turkey Creek. It requires libraries to adopt policies restricting minors’ access to certain materials.
Multiple members, including Councilman Mike Smith, who authored the resolution, said it was essentially pointless because the library is already bound by law to adopt these policies. It has already incorporated and even exceeded some of the law’s requirements of its own volition, he said
This redundancy ultimately led the resolution to fail, but not before council members expressed their own views on the controversy. Several expressed support for creating a restricted section in the library for the challenged books, which are primarily those with LGBTQ+ themes.
Councilwoman Maureen O’Brien said that just like video rental stores, libraries should have a side room where materials that might be rated “R” would be kept away from minors, who would presumably be unable to access the room.
Such a practice is called “red flagging,” which various censorship groups have condemned, and refers to singling out and segregating books that contain mature content.
GET THE MORNING HEADLINES DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX
While O’Brien and other members of the board floated this proposal as a compromise, such a practice might violate the First Amendment.
“Federal courts have held that stigmatizing controversial books by hiding them behind counters or removing them from circulation is a First Amendment violation,” Katie Schwartzmann, director of the Tulane First Amendment Law Clinic, wrote in a letter to the St. Tammany Library Board of Control.
Someone in the audience of the council meeting said the same when O’Brien advocated for the restricted section.
“That’s a violation of our First Amendment rights!” they shouted.
O’Brien and other council members defended those who have challenged materials, arguing that nobody is in favor of banning books.
But as Council Chairman Jakey Airey pointed out, several challengers have requested to have the books removed from the library system.
When Airey made that point, it was met with immediate pushback from conservative activists in the crowd, many of whom carried neon-colored signs reading “Protect Children,” and “Listen to Parents.”
“That’s not a ban!” one person shouted.
But if the library board took the extraordinary move of removing a book from circulation, that would, by definition, be a ban.
While the council seems poised to wash its hands of library business, the inability to agree on the basic protections of the First Amendment seems to indicate the issue is not likely to fade away anytime soon.
The parish library director has said it will likely take years for the library board to work its way through a backlog of challenges, meaning the conservative parish at the heart of Republican support in Louisiana will likely continue to be the venue of monthly face-offs between ultra conservative activists targeting books and anti-censorship advocates.
The issue is extremely politically salient and has been adopted by conservatives across the nation.
In St. Tammany, Republican candidates for council and for parish president have been cornered into taking stances on the issue. Even moderate Republicans, such as St. Tammany Parish President Mike Cooper, who formerly served as the mayor of Covington, came out in favor of a restricted area in libraries. His opponent, Slidell Mayor Greg Cromer, has for several months been a vocal supporter of restricting minors’ access to certain library materials.
The far-right group responsible for the majority of the book challenges in St. Tammany — and around the state — has also actively campaigned against renewal of a library property tax, calling for the system to be defunded.
The Tulane First Amendment Law Clinic provides legal guidance to the Louisiana Illuminator.
Correction: A previous version of this story stated that St. Tammany Parish President Mike Cooper was a Democrat as mayor of Covington. Cooper was registered as a Republican for both terms. The incorrect information has been removed.
SUPPORT NEWS YOU TRUST.
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.