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If at first you don't succeed, defund the public library
Across the country, right-wing activists and politicians are pushing to ban hundreds of books from public school libraries. While this is often described as an effort to remove "pornography" from school libraries, Popular Information has repeatedly documented most of the targeted books have LGBTQ characters or are literary works with sexual content. Other books have been banished for accurate historical portrayals of racism, which these activists consider "Critical Race Theory."
The people pushing to remove books from school libraries often argue that they are not pushing book "bans." Rather, they claim to be focused on ensuring schools have age-appropriate materials. And they frequently argue that students and parents can find whatever material they want at the public library.
But these same activists and politicians are now pushing to ban books from public libraries as well, arguing public money should not be used to purchase pornographic or indoctrinating materials.
But banning books from libraries is tricky. Under the Supreme Court's interpretation of the First Amendment, government officials cannot ban or restrict certain books just because they find them offensive, unwholesome, or otherwise objectionable. The exceptions to this rule are limited.
Library officials, for example, can exclude "obscene" content. But a book that has LGBTQ characters or sexual content is not obscene. Rather, under Miller v. California, the test for obscenity is whether "the average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find that the work taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest; whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law; and whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value." Virtually none of the books targeted by right-wing activists would meet this standard. Even the books targeted with explicit sexual content, like Toni Morrison's Beloved, have "serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value."
So some right-wing politicians are considering a workaround: defunding public libraries completely.
In Missouri, House Republicans just approved a state budget that eliminated the $4.5 million that Governor Mike Parson (R) allocated for public libraries. The move was retribution against the Missouri Association of School Librarians and the Missouri Library Association (MLA). Those organizations filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a measure, signed into law last year, "that has resulted in over 300 books getting banned from school libraries, many of which include LGBTQ characters or racial justice themes." That law prohibited "educators from 'providing sexually explicit material' to students, punishable by up to a $2,000 fine or a year in jail."
Missouri House Republicans now argue that any funding for public libraries would subsidize the MLA's lawsuit. This is not actually true. The MLA receives no state funds — it is a volunteer organization — and is not incurring any costs for its lawsuit. The ACLU is representing the MLA pro bono.
But the proposed budget cuts by the Missouri House, which still must be approved by the Senate and signed into law by the governor, are not an isolated incident. Across the country, politicians frustrated with legal obstacles to book bans are moving to defund or shutter public libraries.
Texas county considers closing entire public library system
On Thursday, a meeting of the Commissioners Court of Llano County in Texas will decide whether to “continue or cease operations of the current physical Llano County library system pending further guidance from the Federal Courts,” following an order from a federal judge to return previously removed books to the shelves of the county’s public libraries.
In April 2022, residents in Llano County “sued county officials” for removing books from the shelves of their public libraries, claiming that removing or restricting access to books that were “deemed inappropriate by some people in the community” violated their First and Fourteenth Amendment rights. The lawsuit claimed the books were removed because county officials “disagree[d] with the ideas within them.”
On March 30, a preliminary injunction from a U.S. district court stated that 12 children’s books that were previously removed must be returned to the shelves “within 24 hours.” The order also prohibited the libraries from removing any other books from the shelves while the case is ongoing. The commissioners and Library Board have since appealed the ruling.
While the county commissioners argued that the books were removed due to a regular “weeding” process, the order concluded that “there was clear influence from outside sources” and that “evidence shows defendants targeted and removed books, including well-regarded, prize-winning books, based on complaints that the books were inappropriate.” The order also stated that the multiple books had been targeted by community complaints for promoting “acceptance of LGBTQ views,” and for being about “critical race theory” and “related racial themes.”
The books removed from the libraries include “They Called Themselves the K.K.K.: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group” by Susan Campbell Bartoletti, “Being Jazz: My Life as a (Transgender) Teen” by Jazz Jennings, and “It's Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex and Sexual Health" by Robie Harris and Michael Emberley.
Instead of returning the books, the county commissioners are now considering closing the libraries entirely. The attorney for plaintiffs in the case, Ellen Leonida, told CNN, “It appears that the defendants would rather shut down the Library System entirely… than make the banned books available to residents who want to read them.”
Defunding a Michigan town's only public library
Last year, citizens in Jamestown, Michigan, voted twice to stop funding their only public library, the Patmos Library, due to it carrying books containing LBGTQ+ content. In November, “[n]early 56 percent of voters” voted to reject the proposal to renew its primary source of funding, after voters also rejected a similar measure in August. This caused the library to “lose 84% of its $245,000 annual budget.”
The campaign to defund the library was led by Jamestown Conservatives, a right-wing group launched last May. The group accused the library of “grooming” children and “promot[ing] the LGBTQ ideology,” after it was discovered that the library carried books containing LBGTQ+ content. According to the library, only “90 out of their roughly 67,000 books had an LGBTQ keyword,” and the library “spent the most money on Christian fiction.”
Much of the outrage involved the library carrying “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe. “Gender Queer” is an award-winning memoir about the author’s experience with gender identity and sexuality. As the book contains some illustrations of sexual acts, the librarians at the Patmos Library “initially placed it in the adult section – near novels with heterosexual sex scenes.” After complaints, the librarians moved the book behind the counter to be available only upon request but refused to remove the book entirely.
Several protestors from Jamestown Conservatives showed up to board meetings, calling the book “pornographic” and demanding it be removed. According to the Washington Post, one protestor argued that “marriage should stay between a man and a woman, and that exposing children to content outside of those bounds could lead to suicide, pedophilia and human trafficking.” One of the organizers of Jamestown Conservatives told Bridge Michigan, “They are trying to groom our children to believe that it’s OK to have these sinful desires,” arguing that “[i]t’s not a political issue, it’s a Biblical issue.”
After the town voted to defund the library, hundreds of thousands of dollars were donated to keep the library open. The donations allow the library to remain open for now, but library officials have stated that the library will likely close permanently sometime “by the fall of 2024” if government funding isn't restored.