Some states are changing the laws that govern community libraries

Jim Zarroli | June 21, 2022
Attempts to ban books in school districts around the country have increased in recent years. Now, some states are working on enacting laws to give politicians more power over public libraries.
Attempts to ban books in school districts around the country have increased in recent years. Now, some states are working on enacting laws to give politicians more power over public libraries. Rick Bowmer | AP

When the Kentucky Legislature started mulling a bill that would tighten control over public libraries earlier this year, librarians across the state called their lawmakers pushing for its defeat.

In the past, legislators would at least have heard them out, says Jean Ruark, chair of the advocacy committee of the Kentucky Library Association. Not this time.

“It seemed as though our efforts fell on deaf ears. There was a big outcry about the passage of that and they did it anyway,” Ruark says.

At a time when public school libraries have increasingly become targets in the culture wars, some red states are going further, proposing legislation aimed at libraries serving the community as a whole. A few of the bills would open librarians up to legal liability over decisions they make.

While some of these bills have quietly died in committee, others have been signed into law, and librarians worry that the increasingly partisan climate is making them vulnerable to political pressure.

“We’re seeing more indirect efforts to control what’s available to the community or to put in laws that would direct how the library staff collects books,” says Deborah Caldwell Stone, director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom.

“A lot of this legislation is really concerning, largely because of the breadth and scope of it, but also because it removes local control from communities,” says Patrick Sweeney, executive director at EveryLibrary, an advocacy group that tracks the legislation.

The bill passed in Kentucky allows local library boards to be appointed by county officials. Sponsors argued that the move makes libraries, which are funded by local property taxes, more accountable to taxpayers.

But opponents say the legislation will undermine the independence of local librarians, which are supposed to serve the public as a whole.

“It’s giving all of this power to partisan elected officials in counties, and if their constituents start telling them they want to ban books, this would allow them to do it. This is incredibly dangerous,” says Kentucky state Rep. Patti Minter, a Democrat who opposed the bill.

The bill was first passed by the Republican-controlled legislature and vetoed by Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat. But Republicans were able to muster enough additional support to override the veto, and the bill takes effect at the start of 2023.

Other states have reached further. In Iowa, a bill was proposed allowing city councils to overturn librarians’ decisions about what books to buy and where they’re displayed.

In Oklahoma, a bill was signed into law requiring public libraries to install filters on digital databases to prevent children from seeing obscene material. Anyone who deliberately flouts the law would face legal liability.

Most libraries already have filters in place, and Oklahoma state Rep. Todd Russ, a Republican, says he expects the bill to rarely if ever result in legal action.

“We’re trying to be good partners here, he says. “We’re not trying to create all these class action lawsuits. We want to work with them to help create good protection, common sense stuff.”

But other states, including Iowa and Idaho, have proposed similar bills, stripping away the legal immunity that librarians have traditionally enjoyed for the decisions they make.

Moreover, legal actions against librarians are not unheard of.

Parents in one Wyoming county recently filed criminal complaints with the local sheriff arguing that library staff members were “pandering obscenity” to minors because they carried books on LGBTQ themes, says Caldwell-Stone. After an investigation, the local prosecutor decided not to press charges.

LGBTQ books typically generate the most controversy, especially in rural areas, says Caldwell-Stone. The mayor of Ridgeland, Mississippi, cut funding for the local libraries earlier this year after complaining about “sexual content” in some material featured by the library.

His decision made headlines, and money poured into the library through a crowdfunding campaign that more than made up for the money lost.

But libraries can’t depend on such campaigns long-term, and librarians such as Ruark worry that in the current political climate, the pressure on them is only going to turn up.

“I think people are concerned about what it’s going to do,” she says, “but they also feel powerless to make it be any different.”

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Transcript :

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In this country, we’ve heard a lot about school districts imposing book bans. Now some states are passing laws to tighten control over public libraries. Jim Zarroli reports.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: In April, the Kentucky Legislature approved a bill that will change the way public libraries in the state are run. For the first time, politicians can appoint the local boards that control public libraries in most counties. State Representative Patti Minter warns that the bill opens libraries up to political influence.

PATTI MINTER: It’s giving all of this power to partisan elected officials in counties. And if their constituents start telling them they want to ban books, this would allow them to do it. This is incredibly dangerous.

ZARROLI: The bill is one example of what library groups say is a disturbing trend. At a time of growing controversy over book bans in schools, some states are changing the laws that govern libraries serving the broader community. Deborah Caldwell-Stone is with the American Library Association.

DEBORAH CALDWELL-STONE: We’re seeing more indirect efforts to control what’s available to the community or to put in laws that would direct how the library staff collects books.

ZARROLI: In Iowa, a bill was sent to committee allowing city councils to overturn a library’s decision about what books to buy and where they’re displayed. Oklahoma approved a bill requiring libraries to install a filter on internet databases that prevents children from seeing obscene material, as defined by the Supreme Court. That’s something the federal government already requires, but the bill would also open librarians who don’t do so to legal consequences. Right now, they’re protected from liability in most places. The bill’s sponsor, Todd Russ, says the bill will apply very rarely, if ever, and only when librarians deliberately flout the law.

TODD RUSS: We’re trying to be good partners here. We’re not trying to create all these class-action lawsuits. We want to work with them to help create good protection, common sense stuff.

ZARROLI: But similar bills have been proposed in Iowa, Indiana and other states. And Caldwell-Stone notes that legal sanctions against librarians are not unthinkable. Parents in one Wyoming county complained to the local sheriff about books on LGBT subjects.

CALDWELL-STONE: They actually filed criminal complaints with the local prosecutor, arguing that the library and the library staff was pandering obscenity to minors.

ZARROLI: Prosecutors decided not to press charges, and such cases so far have been exceedingly rare. But library groups say they’re operating in a much more partisan climate that undermines their independence. The mayor of Ridgeland, Miss., withheld funding to the local library after it displayed books on LGBT themes. Jean Ruark of the Kentucky Library Association says her group did all it could to fight the bill giving local politicians control over library boards. Once their opposition would have made a difference. But in an election year, she says, the political climate is simply too heated.

JEAN RUARK: It seemed as though our efforts fell on deaf ears. There was a big outcry about the passage of that, and they did it anyway.

ZARROLI: The bill was passed by the legislature and vetoed by Kentucky’s Democratic governor, Andy Beshear. But determined lawmakers were able to override his veto, and the bill takes effect at the start of next year.

For NPR News, this is Jim Zarroli.

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