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Saline County judge, citizens bring concerns about “obscene” content to library board

Saline County Judge Matt Brumley (second from left) shows library board members (from left) Laine Holleran, Allison Nolley and Kara Conrad a photo of a book that was removed from a library window display because of foul language on the cover. Brumley said library staff showed good judgment and should continue to do so, but he expressed “a high degree of concern” about library leadership to the board at its May 22, 2023 meeting.
Tess Vrbin
Arkansas Advocate
Saline County Judge Matt Brumley (second from left) shows library board members (from left) Laine Holleran, Allison Nolley and Kara Conrad a photo of a book that was removed from a library window display because of foul language on the cover. Brumley said library staff showed good judgment and should continue to do so, but he expressed “a high degree of concern” about library leadership to the board at its May 22, 2023 meeting.

The Saline County Library Board on Monday delayed a vote on a resolution that would give the county judge power to relocate or remove controversial books from youth sections in the county’s two libraries.

The meeting became heated at times, with members of the public and County Judge Matt Brumley weighing in on the debate over whether minors should have access in public libraries to materials that some consider harmful to children.

Saline County has been the battleground in the debate, brought to statewide attention by a new law, over whether anyone under 18 should be able to access content pertaining to racism, sexual activity and LGBTQ+ topics. Some say this content amounts to “indoctrination” and is fundamentally inappropriate for children, while others believe the content reflects the community and restricting access amounts to censorship.

Library Director Patty Hector told the Saline County Quorum Court last week that “there is nothing wrong with those books” that some citizens want out of children’s reach.

“It’s not illegal to be gay or trans,” she added.

In front of the board and an audience that spilled out of the meeting room, Brumley said Hector’s statement was an example of library leadership causing him a “high degree of concern.”

“I’m not trying to form up messaging, but what I am trying to do is hope that you do what is necessary and helpful,” Brumley said. “Saying that there’s nothing wrong with those books after being asked if you’ve read those books — it’s tough for me to put together, and I hope it wouldn’t be the message from this board.”

The library board’s meeting was the first since the quorum court approved a resolution in April recommending that the library system “relocate materials that are not subject matter or age appropriate for children, due to their sexual content or imagery, to an area that is not accessible to children.”

The court considered the measure “proactive” before a new state law, Act 372 of 2023, goes into effect Aug. 1. The law will change the way libraries handle challenges to content that members of the public consider “obscene” and make librarians liable for disseminating such materials.

Every library system in Arkansas has a policy to address challenges from the public, and those policies will have to be altered to comply with Act 372. The existing policies are rarely used throughout the state, and people who challenge books often want them to be removed rather than relocated, the Advocate reported earlier this month.

The Saline County libraries received no material reconsideration forms until the past week, multiple people said at the board meeting.

Brumley said Hector’s words to the quorum court last week could undermine public confidence in the library’s material reconsideration process. Hector took issue with this and asked if he shared her opinion that “to censor books should be hard to do.”

“Relocating is the same as banning,” Hector said.

Several audience members shouted “No!” in response, and board members asked the crowd to be quiet.

Brumley also took the board to task for not submitting quarterly reports to him as required by state law, and he reminded the board that it is the county judge’s responsibility to appoint board members with the quorum court’s confirmation. He took office in January and did not appoint any current board members.

Three of the five board members voted to table the resolution that would have given Brumley power to relocate or remove library books. No members voted against the motion from board member Marian Douglas, who said parts of the resolution “needed to be reviewed.”

Public input

Ten people spoke during the meeting’s public comment period, and six of them expressed support for relocating certain books. The four who supported keeping those books said they had all worked or volunteered at Saline County libraries.

Children who belong to minority groups or do not have support systems at home need access to library resources that validate their identities and experiences, former library marketing coordinator Jordan Reynolds said.

“The resolution is saying that [for] these kids — though they’re different from us, different from our straight, white community — if they don’t find themselves in books, it’s because they’re immoral, perverse and disgusting,” she said.

Jerry Davidson said the moral problem lies with librarians, who are “at best apathetic and at worst proud and deceitful” for allowing “pornographic” content on library shelves.

“Like any high and conquering tyrant, you see anyone whom you would overcome and force to bow down to your ideals as less than a person,” Davidson said in a short speech that included multiple biblical references. “Your gods are pride, pleasure and fake virtue.”

Librarian Jordan Sandlin said she is tired of being “screamed at and being called a pedophile or a groomer.” She added that different books have different target audiences.

“Libraries are for everyone, but not every single book in the library is written with everyone in mind,” Sandlin said.

Ann Garner objected to the library putting a sex education book aimed at middle schoolers on display. The book, “Sex Is a Funny Word” by Cory Silverberg, asserts that gender is not determined by anatomy.

“This is a lie, and it’s saying God has not made a child in his perfect image,” Garner said.

She claimed that the books she and others find inappropriate have only appeared in libraries in the past three years, since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

This is not true, said Rebecca Kidder, the manager of the Bryant library. She said people with concerns about library content should complete material reconsideration forms and utilize the library’s “simple” review policy.

Bob Hitt said he agreed that the library’s reconsideration policy is simple and straightforward. He also said he initially understood why library leadership did not want to follow the resolution, citing the First Amendment right to free expression, but he questioned this reasoning after learning the library’s social media code of conduct allows staff to remove social media comments they consider “inappropriate.”

Hitt said the “lack of action by this board has brought us to where we are today” and urged the board to work with elected officials to “come up with a solution.”

“If you can’t or won’t do this, then perhaps we, the people, will make the hard decisions,” he said. “The citizens in Jonesboro and Craighead County did.”

The Craighead County Jonesboro Public Library system saw voters cut its funding in half in 2022 after protests over an LGBTQ+ book display and a transgender author’s visit to the library within the previous couple of years.

Several Saline County citizens who spoke against the resolution in April warned of a “slippery slope” to defunding the county’s libraries if the resolution passed. One of those citizens was Bailey Morgan, an organizer with the Saline County Library Alliance, a nonpartisan group opposing conservative efforts to challenge library content.

A billboard connected to Saline County Republicans was erected outside the Benton Walmart earlier this month and decries “X-rated library books.” The Library Alliance responded by crowdfunding their own billboard, which went up Monday on Interstate 30 near the city limits between Benton and Bryant.

Communication issues

Brumley, the county judge, said the person who turned in a reconsideration request to the library on Friday had not read the entire book in question, so the request was not considered. The person read the book before turning in another form Monday.

Brumley did not name the book but said he was familiar with it and took issue with its graphic descriptions of sexual behavior. He asked the board for reassurance that the library would follow its reconsideration process, and Douglas said the process began as soon as the library received the form.

“If it happened today, we have to give the staff time to go through those steps,” she said. “We can’t, I can’t [and] no one on the library staff can go, ‘Pull a book from somewhere in the library and put it in another place.’”

Brumley said he thought reconsideration forms should ideally not be necessary and a concerned parent should simply be able to talk to library staff. He gave an example of a book with foul language that staff accidentally put on display but later took down and acknowledged the oversight.

In addition to not receiving the required quarterly reports, Brumley said he was upset that Hector and the library board did not keep him up to date about a potential merger between the Saline County and Garland County library systems.

Brumley claimed library leadership has not always been truthful with him. Hector said she could refute several things Brumley said at the meeting and thought he did not give her an adequate opportunity to respond to his statements.

Board member Caroline Miller Robinson said “both sides” were not communicating well, and she promised Brumley that the board would provide quarterly reports from now on.

The board voted unanimously to update its material reconsideration policy to explicitly require people to “read, view, or listen to the entirety of the work” before filing a reconsideration request.

Act 372 states that a book challenged under the law “shall be reviewed in its entirety and shall not have selected portions taken out of context.”

A committee of five to seven people selected by school principals or head librarians will be charged with reviewing the “appropriateness” of content challenged under Act 372. The committee would vote on whether to remove the material after hearing the complainant’s case in a public meeting.

A complainant may appeal the committee’s decision if the majority votes no, and appeals at public libraries would go to the county judge or the county quorum court for a final decision.

Tess Vrbin is a reporter with the nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization Arkansas Advocate. It is part of the States Newsroom which is supported by grants and a coalition of readers and donors.