Thursday, October 29, 2009
Jessamine County Public Library in Kentucky
That library's policy allows any patron to check out any library book, and states that it is a parental responsibility, not the responsibility of the library staff, to supervise their own children's reading. The fired employees were aware of the policy and made an informed choice to violate it.
News coverage of this controversy has been a bit vague, failing to specify exactly which issue out of the series was involved, what about that issue was considered too adult by the library employees, and what the opinion of the parents of the child denied the book was. A reporter identified the Black Dossier issue as the one in question in a response to my emailed question.
Black Dossier is different from the other challenged books I've reviewed on this blog. Every other book I've looked at here was clearly within the realm of protected speech for any age group, and claims about pornography and sexual explicitness were perfectly ridiculous. Not so Black Dossier. On reviewing this volume, I found that, in a comic-book sort of way (drawings, not photographs), it depicted nude people, some of them engaging in sexual activity (you can generally see what they're doing, although you can't see the specific body parts involved).
In a legal sense, the book probably has serious value, as it makes wry commentary on politics and social foibles. It is also unlikely to be prurient, since the illustrations probably don't appeal to an unhealthy interest in sex or bodies. That means that although some readers will definitely find this book "patently offensive," it probably doesn't meet the legal definition of obscenity. In other words, in spite of what many will find objectionable, perhaps even indecent, the book qualifies as protected speech.
Potentially, a book like Black Dossier could be the basis of a legal test that might allow some additional restrictions -- perhaps age-determined check-out limits -- on SOME books in public libraries. If I understand the legalities correctly, that would involve classifying the book as Harmful to Minors.
Harmful to Minors, as a legal term, does NOT mean just anything that is age-inappropriate. Harmful to Minors is a sub-category of obscenity, meaning "obscene with respect to minors." It is a category that allows some access restrictions to be put in place, provided that the access of adults, for whom the material is not obscene, is not significantly impacted.
Harmful to Minors is a difficult legal category to work with, and going down this path could be a real Pandora's box. Its legal definition requires that all three aspects of the obscenity test -- prurience, patent offensiveness, and lack of serious value -- be evaluated by the standards of a minor. The work, then, would have to provoke an unhealthy interest in sex or bodies in a minor, be patently offensive to a minor, and lack value for a minor. Any application of the category to library materials would have to be very narrowly and carefully defined to pass constitutional muster, and it is likely that some kind of judicial oversight would be basic to the process. It is also unclear what specific kinds of age grading could be imposed, given that the perspective of a 6-year-old on these standards is quite different from that of a 16-year-old.
I'm not saying that this or any library should proceed on this basis. Most likely, doing so would require a willingness to test the process in court, and that could get expensive. It is possible to imagine, however, that a court decision in the future might permit a system of age-graded access for some kinds of materials.
For the present, though, I'm not sure that the library can do any more than it has already done. Their existing policy appears to my non-expert eye to comply fully with Free Speech law, and any changes in that policy would have to be carefully evaluated against First Amendment protections.
For links to news coverage and other information, see my web page on the subject at www.BannedInWestBend.info.