Thursday, October 29, 2009

Jessamine County Public Library in Kentucky

Two library employees in Nicholasville, KY, were fired for refusing to allow a child (apparently 11 years old) to check out the Black Dossier issue of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series of graphic novels (comic books for grown ups).  The series is written for adults and older teens, and was classified in the Jessamine County Public Library as General (i.e, "adult") fiction, not Juvenile or Young Adult.

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


  1. It's a thorny issue, that's for sure.

    I'm going to be incredibly pedantic and nerdy here, apologies: Graphic novels are comic books in a novel format. Although there are many more for teens and adults than for kids. And now you know, and knowing is half the battle ;)

  2. I'm just so impressed that there was actually some substance to this issue. So often, the obscenity charges about a given book are fabrications, usually voiced the loudest by people who've never read it, and often made by people who read very little at all. It's refreshing to have an example that isn't just made up out of nothing.

    Still-- I suspect the fired librarians made an ill-considered choice: they could have checked the book out to the child, and THEN made a stink about it, and still have their jobs. I guess they really didn't want to work there.

  3. At least one of these two library workers deserved to be fired, and not soley based on the fact that they were trying to censor a book. Book censorship is always a subject that is going to provoke media attention and argument. No matter what side you of the argument a person is on there is no denying that a patron record was tampered with when Ms. Cook removed that young lady's hold on the book. That in it self is worthy of her firing.

  4. I agree with Anonymous completely. I'm not sure if more details will come out, or if this situation will just fade into oblivion, but news stories indicate that at least one of the fired employees gave more than sufficient cause for termination.

  5. The main issue to the community (I'm a resident here) is not the firing of the employees, but the explicit sexual nature of the book, which the author himself describes as "pornographic." The consensus of opinion of those opposed to allowing free access to the book by any minor is based on the argument in this article - the potential harm to some children of exposure to the material.

  6. I agree that the book is not appropriate for children. That is, it is too sexually explicit for younger children -- even though it is unlikely to meet the legal definition of obscenity for adults.

    I also think that the firing of the two desk attendants was entirely appropriate, since they violated library policy for a long period of time, and in at least two different ways.

    What are you going to do about the access restrictions you want to impose? What law in Kentucky allows a librarian to make that kind of decision for a minor patron? What specific definition of the kinds of content a book might have tells a librarian how to decide that a certain child can have book X but not book Y? Does that law account for the difference in maturity level between a 6-year-old and a 16-year-old? How old would a patron have to be to be allowed to check out "Black Dossier" without parental permission?

    If you don't spell these details out in carefully crafted law, you're placing an impossible burden on library staff and guaranteeing that the library/county will get sued for infringing on somebody's Free Speech rights.

  7. This woman deserved to be fired simply on the basis that she (mis)used her "authority" as a library employee in a few ways. She brought the book to her supervisor stating that she thought it was too obscene to be circulated. When she was told that it was within the library's listed standards she checked it out herself to keep it out of circulation, and kept re-checking it....for A YEAR. When she went to renew the book the final time the system wouldn't allow her to because a library patron had put in a request for that book. She then went into library records to find out the identity of the person requesting the book. She went again to her supervisor and told them that an 11 year old wanted the book and that she had it and was refusing to turn it in. She was told that it was a firing offense to keep the book, and she refused to turn it back in.

    This woman is quite obviously a little out of touch with reality. She stated to the local media (I live in the county where this took place) that while she was reading the book she had to have a group pray over her frequently to try to help her deal with the images in the book.

  8. Thanks, anonymous. I really need to update my webpage on this issue to reflect this information. While I can understand that many would consider "Black Dossier" too racy for youngsters, but I never imagined that any adult would need to be prayed over while reading it. The image is "precious."