Thursday, October 22, 2009

Open Letter to Lake County Commissioners

An Open Letter to the County Commissioners of Lake County, Florida
Regarding Censorship in the Leesburg and Lake County Library Systems.
22 October 2009

Dear Commissioner:

I have been following the recent Leesburg library controversy, in which some parents have objected to certain library books.  I recently read, in the Daily Commercial, that the Lake County commissioners are considering what action, if any, to take, as that controversy has expanded to include other libraries within the Lake County system.  I wish to submit for your consideration some legal and practical information that I think highly relevant.  I am writing as someone who has studied at some length a number of recent attempts at censorship in public libraries, but I must state at the outset that I am not an attorney.

In my opinion, the action taken by the Leesburg library is the maximum any public library can do toward accommodating parental concerns about materials that some might find objectionable but that do not rise to the legal definition of obscenity.  The Leesburg compromise has the library split their Young Adult collection into two distinct parts based on the age of the intended audience of each book.  This provides concerned parents with some guidance as to the age-appropriateness of each book, but imposes no access restrictions, creates no stigma, and does not discriminate on the basis of book content.  They have found the only legal channel, a narrow one indeed, that allows the library to accommodate some of the parental concerns.

This compromise seems not to have satisfied the book challengers, however.  The complaint of the challengers is that within each of the two collections (Young Adult and High School), minors may still find books that the parents consider objectionable mixed with books that the parents find acceptable.  This is undoubtedly true, and I submit that the amount of work this compromise imposes on library staff is a pointless waste of time and tax dollars, given that the book challengers have not been satisfied by it.

Beyond this limited compromise, the kinds of access restrictions demanded by the book challengers are likely to violate First Amendment protections of Free Speech, resulting in a costly lawsuits against the libraries and the cities or counties that run them.  It is  quite unlikely that any of the library books currently challenged in Lake County meet the legal definition of obscenity, the legal definition being quite a bit more rigorous than that in common usage.  That being the case, these books fall into the category of "protected speech," meaning that the right of citizens to access those books cannot lightly be infringed.  Please take note of a US District Court finding in "Sund v. City of Wichita Falls" :
The Wichita Falls Public Library, like all other public libraries, is a limited public forum for purposes of First Amendment analysis. . . . In a limited public forum, the government's ability to restrict patrons' First Amendment rights is extremely narrow. Thus, the City cannot limit access to library materials solely on the basis of the content of those materials, unless the City can demonstrate that the restriction is necessary to achieve a compelling government interest and there are no less restrictive alternatives for achieving that interest.
You should be aware that courts have found that when it comes to protected speech in libraries, even restrictions that appear quite small to the layperson can amount to an unlawful infringement upon Free Speech.  In "Right to Read Defense Committee v. School Committee of the City of Chelsea" the court termed the removal of a single title from the school library a "ban," and ordered the book returned to the shelves.  In "Sund v. City of Wichita Falls" the court used the term "censorship" to describe the re-shelving of two children's books from the children's section to the adult section of a public library, and ordered the books returned to the children's section without restrictions.  In "Counts v. Cedarville School District" the court found, among other things, that requiring a signed parental permission slip to access "Harry Potter" books was a violation of Free Speech rights, and ordered a halt to the practice.

Unlike a school or nursery, a public library has no authority to act as a parent to any minor. It is not up to a library or librarian, then, to determine which books any given child may or may not read.  This is a right each parent holds with regard to his or her own children, but not with regard to anyone else's children.  This right is also a responsibility, a burden that courts have clearly stated must be borne by the concerned parent.  As the US District Court wrote in Sund v. Wichita:
Moreover, if a parent wishes to prevent her child from reading a particular book, that parent can and should accompany the child to the Library, and should not prevent all children in the community from gaining access to constitutionally protected materials. Where First Amendment rights are concerned, those seeking to restrict access to information should be forced to take affirmative steps to shield themselves from unwanted materials; the onus should not be on the general public to overcome barriers to their access to fully-protected information.
I ask the commissioners to give careful consideration to the First Amendment issues that relate to any decisions made about public library holdings and procedures, and where appropriate, to seek guidance from an attorney with expertise in the area of Free Speech law as it applies to public libraries.  I ask you to consider carefully that the mission of any public library is to serve a diverse community with varying opinions about what is and is not objectionable material.  I ask you to consider the fiscal impact of civil action against the library and local government that might result from an infringement on the First Amendment.  Above all, I ask you to respect the right and responsibility of each parent to choose for his or her own child, and not anyone else's, what that child may read.

Thank you for your time and consideration.


  1. An excellent summary and good advise for any government body dealing with calls for censorship in their local libraries. Perhaps a version could be submitted to the officials of West Bend?

    My name is Dave Rank

  2. Thank you, Anon. I'd be happy to write up a West Bend version, but I was hoping that was no longer necessary. I only know what I see in the news, and I was interpreting the absence of that to imply that the West Bend situation has calmed down to the point that no labeling, re-shelving, removing, or book burning is going to take place.

    Please let me know if the situation appears otherwise.

  3. Nice letter! I hope they follow your advice!

    It's so nice to see people like you fighting censorship with such fervour, I applaud you.

  4. I heard from two out of the five commissioners today, and both report that the commission is unlikely to intervene in this issue, in spite of what the news article suggested. Time will tell, of course.

  5. It's kind of an ostrich-head-in-the-sand approach, but it might work. Officials getting involved(unless a book has already been censored, then they almost always should) only seems to lead to a long public battle and bad PR for the community.