Two major lawsuits filed by freedom to read advocates in Florida and in Arkansas are welcome developments in fighting a nationwide surge in book bans and censorship. But a June 7 hearing before the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals serves as a reminder that the legal road can be long, winding, and uncertain. Take the closely watched case in Texas, Little v. Llano County, filed in April 2022, as an example.
On March 30, Judge Robert Pitman issued a widely hailed preliminary injunction in the case, ordering the return of 17 library books Pitman determined were illegally "targeted and removed" and barring the library from removing other books while the litigation proceeds. The Fifth Circuit is now considering an appeal filed by Llano County officials challenging that order. On Thursday, the Texas Tribune reported some notable details from Wednesday's nearly hour long oral argument before a skeptical three-judge panel of appeals court judges.
At one point, the Tribune reports, conservative justice Kyle Duncan asked: "Why is removing pornography from a library an impermissible motive under the First Amendment?" The answer, or course: it isn't. But lawyer Katherine Chiarello, representing the library patrons, noted that a legal analysis know as the Miller test is typically used to determine whether materials are obscene, which was not done in Llano.
Duncan responded by applying his own on-the-spot test to two books that feature prominently on the ALA Top 10 most challenged books list: Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe and Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison. "Lawn Boy and Gender Queer, if they don't meet the definition of pornography, I don't know what does," Duncan said. At which point Chiarello corrected Duncan that the standard is not pornography, but obscenity. "Seems obscene,” Duncan concluded.
Duncan's line of questioning is notable because the question before the appeals court really does not involve any legal determination of obscenity for the books in question. Rather, Llano County's rather tortured main argument is that the 17 books Pitman ordered returned to the library's shelves were removed as part of a "weeding" exercise, not based on content—in fact lawyers for Llano County argue that the librarian who removed the books in question didn't even read them—while at the same time arguing that the supposedly weeded books are still available for checkout. Which, of course, is not how weeding works at all.
You can listen to the Fifth Circuit arguments here.
As we reported in Publishers Weekly, two amicus briefs filed in support of Pitman's injunction late last Friday—one by librarians, and one by publishers—do a good job of explaining the question before the Fifth Circuit. "The purpose of 'weeding' is to maintain a library collection that is 'vital, relevant, and useful.' But 'weeding' must never be used—as it was here—as a cynical dodge for purging library collections of controversial or disfavored books," the librarians' amicus brief explains. "Professional librarian training, standards of conduct, and ethical canons, consistent with the First Amendment, demand far more."
The Washington Post has more on the lawsuit filed in Arkansas over Act 372, including comments from plaintiff and organizer Nate Coulter, director of the Central Arkansas Library System. The law’s vagueness will have a chilling effect, Coulter said, which, he added, is the law's objective. "The purpose is to scare people, discourage people, intimidate people from collecting these things that are deemed objectionable by certain parts of the community," Coulter told the Post.
From the Louisiana Illuminator, news that Louisiana has passed its bill to limit access to so-called sexually explicit books in libraries. It's unclear whether Governor John Bel Edwards will veto the bill. "Senate Bill 7, by Sen. Heather Cloud, R-Turkey Creek, would require libraries to create a card system so parents could prevent their children from checking out books deemed inappropriate. Libraries would also have to adopt policy language to limit minors’ access to material that describes 'sexual conduct,' which the bill defines in five paragraphs," the article explains. "The bill sets out financial penalties for libraries that do not comply."
In Arizona, Tucson.com reports that Governor Katie Hobbs has vetoed a bill that would have banned allegedly "sexually explicit" school library books from minors, which sponsors tried to slide through by including it in a bill to outlaw porn from being filmed in schools, after two Arizona teachers were fired last year for making an only-fans video on school property grounds. "The sponsor has stated that this bill was aimed at preventing a specific action from reoccurring, while in reality it is written in such a vague manner that it serves as little more than a thinly veiled effort to ban books,’’ Hobbs wrote in her veto statement.
From KCUR, a local NPR affiliate, news that a large Kansas City–area library system has banned LGBTQ Pride displays in its children’s and teens’ sections. "The Mid-Continent Public Library said the decision was made to comply with Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft’s new rules, which forbid libraries from having displays of 'age-inappropriate' materials in areas designated for teens and children. If libraries don’t comply, they could lose state funding," the article notes. An MCPL spokesperson told reporters that the controversial new rule has been a source of confusion. "We’re trying to balance complying with the rule and being able to keep that state funding that’s important to us, with making sure we have great access."
From the local Royal Examiner, some extensive, colorful coverage of an effort to defund the Samuels Public Library in Front Royal, Va. "At issue...was whether continued county funding of the Samuels Public Library should occur while a total of 134 books requested for removal by the 'CleanUpSamuels' website advocacy group remain on library shelves," writes Roger Bianchini. "Our count was 34 to defund pending removal of cited books, 26 to fully fund the library and let its own review process control content, with a few who seemed on the fence favoring removal of certain books but not really favoring defunding of the library."
From Patch.com, news of a bid by local Republicans in Massachusetts to defund the Sturbridge Public Library over its hosting of a drag event via Zoom. "The defund effort failed in a vote of 320 to 23," Patch reports.
Some good news on the library funding front in Montana: The Great Falls Tribune reports that Great Falls voters approved the library mill levy: "The 'yes' vote clears the way for the Great Falls Public Library to clear its fiscal shortfall and expand its level of services with the addition of 12 full-time employees, increased funding for building repair and maintenance, and more money for computers, books, and research materials."
From Boston.com, reports on a proposed school library policy in Ludlow, Mass., that would label "sexually explicit" materials and empower elected "school committee members" to override librarians decisions to collect materials. "At this point, the American Civil Liberties Union is involved," the article notes, adding that an attorney at the ACLU wrote a letter to the district criticizing the proposed policy.
Over at Book Riot, Kelly Jensen starts her weekly censorship column with a discussion of an Amazon Prime docuseries about the Duggar family, which details the work of the Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBPL) and its affiliated home schools. "The homeschool curriculum developed through the IBPL—called the Advanced Training Institute (ATI)—showcases the talking points being spewed by right-wing bigots bent on banning books," she writes. Jensen also has a piece for Book Riot this week on Kirk Cameron and his publisher, Brave Books, and their plan for a nationwide day of public library events for August 5.
From Wisconsin Public Radio, residents of Menomonee Falls, Wisc., appear to have reason to be concerned about the future of their public library. "Trustees denied the Menomonee Falls Public Library is in danger. But a recent $250,000 funding cut to the library’s budget, the ousting of three library board members, and a comment that Menomonee Falls residents are 'affluent and can buy their own books,' paint a different picture," the report states. The article goes on to call out one village board rep who reportedly told the president of the Menomonee Falls Library Board of Trustees that he would be "requesting a book audit, and he planned to submit a request for reconsideration 'concerning teen LGBTQ+ titles on behalf of residents who may be hesitant to share their names and addresses that the form requests." The board member also indicated "that at least three village board trustees are already planning on not funding Menomonee Falls Public Library in the future."
From the New York Times, a piece on the legal battle over a recently opened Queens library. "A few years back, architects designed a public library in Queens that has been lauded as one of the most stunning public buildings produced in New York in a century. But it is also rife with obstacles for people with disabilities, according to city officials who are now suing the designers for the $10 million they say it will cost to fix," the Times writes. In their defense, the architects say the city "signed off" repeatedly on the design. Advocate Sharon McLennon-Wier, executive director of the Center for Independence of the Disabled, nails it, though. "It’s really a shame,” McLennon-Wier told the Times. “This library was built in 2019. You would not think—ADA was passed in 1990— that we would have such a new structure that has so many problems.”
An interesting read from Government Technology on the "steady decline for the last decade" in public computer use in libraries. "While libraries struggled to meet the demand for public computers nearly 20 years ago, they’re now facing a new battle: keeping up with the popularity of digital resources like e-books, audio, and video downloads," the article observes. "While this digital transformation makes the library resources more convenient for many, some of these changes come with a hefty price tag. The societal shifts in how people use the Internet and consume media are leading some librarians to question what the future of library collections looks like and how added digital costs will fit into their local government’s budget."
And finally this week, California governor Gavin Newsom announced a statewide expansion of Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, which will provide more free books to young children across the state. With the expansion, all California children under five will be eligible to receive a free book in the mail every month as the program scales over the next several years. In addition, California is now the first state to offer a fully bilingual book option for Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library.
Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library is currently active in all 50 states, and has gifted over 200 million books since it launched in 1995. In recognition of this remarkable work, the American Library Association is set to confer an honorary lifetime membership to Dolly Parton—the organization's highest honor. The award will be made at the upcoming ALA Annual Conference, set for June 22-27 in Chicago.
“This is the kind of challenge we like at the State Library—working with local partners to put as many books as we can into the hands of as many kids as we can,” said California state librarian Greg Lucas, in a statement. “Early readers grow into strong readers. Strong readers are more likely to succeed in school and to succeed in life. The Imagination Library makes that happen for every kid under five.”