A sign opposing Louisiana’s recent trend of book banning and librarian terminations greets motorists on North Tyler Street in Covington on June 18, 2023. (Wes Muller/Louisiana Illuminator)
MANDEVILLE — The St. Tammany Library Board of Control rescinded a controversial policy that segregated over 150 challenged titles pending review, a practice First Amendment advocates say was unconstitutional.
The board voted 5-0 to reverse course at its regular meeting Monday night.
The policy was adopted in December amid pressure from the St. Tammany Library Accountability Project, a small but vocal group of conservative activists responsible for the vast majority of the challenges.
Keeping the books, most of which feature LGBTQ+ themes, separated from the rest of the collection created tension between the board and anti-censorship advocates whose opposition persisted even as the interest of the Accountability Project faded.
Board members said they received letters condemning the practice from the Tulane First Amendment Law Clinic and the ACLU of Louisiana.
The Tulane First Amendment Law Clinic provided a copy of its letter, in which it called the policy unconstitutional, to the Illuminator.
“The Board’s policy has allowed a few residents to effectively censor what the rest of the Parish can access on library shelves, including award-winning works long cherished by readers,” Katie Schwartzmann, the clinic’s director, wrote in a letter to the board. “Taking 150+ works off of library shelves violates the First Amendment’s Free Speech Clause and the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause. When done at the request of a handful of individuals (and primarily one), this is a classic example of a ‘heckler’s veto’ repugnant to our nation’s laws.”
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In the 10 months since it first adopted the policy, the St. Tammany library board has worked through less than two dozen of the over 150 challenge titles, a pace that meant the books were likely to be kept sequestered for years. The pace frustrated patrons, some of whom expressed at meetings that asking library staff to wheel out the challenged books for them to browse while under watch felt stigmatizing.
“Simply put, one person controlled what 270,000 people got access to on our shelves,” board member Bill McHugh said prior to the vote.
The books currently sequestered will be returned to their original spots within 30 days, and any further challenged materials will remain shelved as usual pending review.
“Make them innocent until proven guilty,” anti-censorship advocate Roxanne Newman said of the books during the public comment period.
The board’s vote to rescind the policy was met with cheers and thanks from those in attendance.
Members also adopted a new challenged materials process that more closely resembles its original policy.
Under the library’s current policy, the library board of control is responsible for making the final decision on challenged books. Under the new policy, a panel of librarians and staff would make a decision on challenges, but patrons would have the option to appeal that decision to the library board, which would then vote to affirm or reject the original decision.
This was essentially the library’s policy prior to this year, although the new rules also require the board make the initial decision if the material is challenged on the grounds of it violating a state law that restricts minors access to sexual content.
Any decisions to challenged materials will be valid for five years, meaning the board cannot be inundated with repeat challenges.
The board also took action on two challenges, voting to keep both items where they were originally shelved.
Editor’s note: The Tulane First Amendment Law Clinic provides legal guidance to the Louisiana Illuminator.
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