America’s culture wars came to Sanibel last week. More than 100 people, many more than capacity, crowded into a meeting room of the Sanibel Public Library for a meeting of the Library District Board of Commissioners. Never had they had anyone attend one of their meetings, commissioners noted in amazement. Most were there to defend the judgment of the professional library staff and commissioners — and the role that libraries have traditionally played in America as guardians of the First Amendment’s value on access to information reflecting diverse points of view.
An online article in a southwestern Florida right-wing publication had reported that two mothers and their children recently visited the library and that one child came across a small display on one of the shelves in the children’s section honoring Pride Month. The display included two children’s books dealing with transgender youth (”Jack, Not Jackie” and “My Own Way”), which the mother believed inappropriate for her child. The second child came across another children’s book also describing transgender youth (”When Aiden Became a Brother”).
Let’s play along with how these grassroots culture war controversies work and pretend that these mothers stumbled on the offending books, not that they went hunting for them as part of a nationwide effort designed to remove books that they find offensive and, eventually, take over library boards.
Apparently, according to the comments of these parents at the library commission meeting, books dealing with gay families and gay relationships can be tolerated but information describing the life and problems faced by transgender youth crosses some line of impermissible inclusion in the library’s children’s collection. It should be noted that these books are available at public libraries throughout the country.
Few people will proclaim that they are actually for censorship. These days greater subtlety is required. The two mothers requested that the display be “relocated” to a spot where young patrons would be less likely to see the offending books.
Surely every parent has the right to direct the upbringing of their children. Accordingly, the Sanibel District Library Policy states, “Responsibility for library materials used by minors rests with their parents or guardians.”
What I have always found distressing and infuriating in censorship debates is the notion that a parent would think that the appropriate way to protect their child from what they regard as harmful information is to use the power of a government agency like a public library to adopt policies that would keep information away from everyone’s children.
By well-established policies of the American Library Association, every library typically has a procedure by which a patron can file a complaint requesting that, for one reason or another, a book be removed from the shelves. The Sanibel mothers decided not to file the complaint form and to make their appeal directly to library commissioners. Not succeeding (yet) in having the offending books removed or the display relocated so the information would be less accessible to youngsters, a strategy of vigilante censorship was adopted: The offending books were checked out en masse to keep them out of circulation.
This issue is far from over: Six of the seven seats on the Sanibel District Library Commission will be filled in the November election. Three of the six seats are uncontested. There will be a contest for the remaining three seats — and, no surprise, the protesting mothers are seeking to fill two of them.
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This is a non-partisan election, so the difference between candidates is not our usual partisan division. The difference between the candidates is likely to be between those supporting restrictions on information, even censorship, and those supporting the First Amendment’s value of access to information on a diversity of topics, representing diverse points of view.
This is a nationwide movement that is part of our country’s current culture wars, so — if it hasn’t already — it will soon be coming to a library near you. Get informed about the candidates so you can help defend your library staff and your public library.
Howard L. Simon is retired executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida and president of Clean Okeechobee Waters Foundation Inc. He lives in Sanibel.