May 13, 2024

Piper Hutchinson: Ultra-conservative lawmakers target Louisiana libraries as culture war rages on

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Piper Hutchinson is a reporter for the Louisiana Illuminator. This run-down of anti-library activity in Louisiana was published in the Louisiana Illuminator, a part of the States Newsroom.

With veto-proof majorities in both legislative chambers and the backing of a new governor, some Louisiana Republicans are taking aim at public libraries with legislation that could criminalize librarians.

Four conservative lawmakers have filed five bills that play off the library culture war currently raging across the nation, including in Louisiana.

Upset with what they view as sexually explicit materials in libraries and the “Marxist” American Library Association, far-right activists have filed thousands of book challenges in the past few years and pushed libraries to disaffiliate with the ALA. In Louisiana, public library oversight boards have mostly resisted calls to restrict book content, but some, including the State Library, have ended their ALA memberships.

The issue has captured the interest of Republicans in Louisiana, including Gov. Jeff Landry.

As attorney general, Landry set up a tip line to field complaints against libraries that he said failed to protect children from “early sexualization, as well as grooming, sex trafficking, and abuse.” Landry later drafted a “Protecting Innocence” report on libraries and supported legislation to restrict minors’ access to certain library materials.

Criminalizing librarians

Three bills filed could lead to criminal punishment for librarians.

House Bill 777 by Rep. Kellee Dickerson, R-Denham Springs, would prohibit any public employee from spending public funds with the American Library Association. Anyone who does would be subject to up to two years in prison or a fine of up to $1,000.

The bill would force public libraries, including parish and university libraries, to sever their memberships with the association and would prohibit libraries from sending their librarians to ALA conferences and other continuing education events.

Dickerson said in an interview she filed the bill because she wants money to be spent locally, rather than with a national organization.

The villainization of the American Library Association is something that perplexes most librarians.

“I’m not sure exactly what these people think go on at ALA conferences,” Suzanne Stauffer, an LSU library and information science professor said in an interview. “It’s workshops about how to better meet the needs of their community.”

“Frankly, the conferences are dull,” Stauffer added, laughing.

Michael Lunsford, a conservative activist who frequently targets the ALA, thinks otherwise. Lunsford, executive director of Citizens for a New Louisiana, a Lafayette-based advocacy group, has been on the frontlines of the library battle in Louisiana. He and his organization have been involved with attempts to restrict books before multiple parish library boards of control. The appointed volunteer boards oversee libraries and have the final say over what books are removed from the shelves

Lunsford described the American Library Association as a “Marxist” organization out to fundamentally change U.S. society.

“We’ve had an organization that comes out and says, ‘You have to have these erotic books in your children’s section or you’re a Nazi,’” Lunsford said.

Lunsford claimed he found a copy of “Let’s Talk About it” in the children’s section of the Lafayette Public Library. The graphic novel is a nonfiction young adult book that contains depictions of genitalia and descriptions of sex acts. The book is billed as a guide to coming of age, puberty, consent and sexuality and is targeted at readers 14 and older.

The books Lunsford and other ultra-conservative activists have targeted are primarily those with LGBTQ+ themes and those with sexual content are classified as young adult or adult books. Louisiana also recently adopted an extensive tiered card system that gives parents control over what types of books their children can check out.

Removing books

House Bill 414, by Rep Josh Carlson, R-Lafayette, and House Bill 545 by Rep. Beryl Amedee, R-Houma, would remove exceptions for public libraries and school libraries, respectively, from the state law on obscenity

Louisiana’s obscenity statute, which carries criminal penalties, currently excludes public libraries, schools, movie theaters, churches, museums, medical clinics, hospitals, doctors, governmental agencies, quasi-governmental sponsored organizations, and employees of those organizations.

“I’ve seen books that fit the category of obscenity, and I don’t want to see those books in public libraries,” Carlson said.

Carlson could not immediately provide titles of the books he feels are obscene but said he would follow up to provide them.

If Carlson’s bill becomes law, a librarian could face jail time if a judge determines that a book in a library fails the Miller test, a three-pronged test for determining whether speech or text is legally obscene. Louisiana’s obscenity law provides for two to five years in prison and up to a $10,000 fine if the offense involves an unmarried minor.

Lunsford said he hopes judges consider their next election when making their decisions on what constitutes obscenity.

Celise Reech-Harper, a Louisiana public librarian, said the bill is meant to inspire fear.

“I see that bill as an effort to chill access to information and to bully… library professionals and make them fearful to complete their jobs,” Reech-Harper said.

Library directors

The Legislature is also considering a bill that would allow a parish library review board to hire a director that is not a certified librarian.

The Louisiana Board of Library Examiners certifies library directors. To get this certification, a candidate needs a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree of library science from an ALA-accredited program, three years of appropriate executive experience and a passing grade on oral and written exams given by the board.

The ALA is an accrediting body for library science programs. Degrees from these programs are the standard for librarians and library directors.

House Bill 168, by Carlson, was voluntarily deferred in committee Thursday, but he said he is considering bringing the bill back.

In its original form, the bill would have removed a graduate degree in library science from the list of requirements to become a certified librarian. Carlson intended to substitute that language for wording that would have allowed the hiring of a non-certified librarian.

Carlson’s concern stems from the search for the next Lafayette Public Library director. The previous director, Danny Gillane, was illegally fired by the parish library board in executive session after a years-long contentious relationship with some of its members. The board later rescinded the illegal termination, allowing Gillane to resign.

The Lafayette library board’s search committee wants to remove the requirement that the director have an ALA-certified degree because its library is no longer affiliated with the organization, The Acadiana Advocate reported.

Carlson said he didn’t want to dilute or diminish the role of a librarian but hoped his bill would result in more applications for the Lafayette director’s position.

Several members of the House Municipal, Parochial and Cultural Affairs Committee expressed concerns with the bill and asked Carlson to defer. Carlson said he plans to consult with its members to see if he can come up with an amendment that would satisfy them.

Library board removals

Some library review board members in conservative parishes have been reluctant to ban books. In response, some politicians have expressed desire to boot those board members, or in some cases, have removed them without cause and with limited legal backing.

House Bill 640, by Rep. Jay Gallé, R-Mandeville, would allow library board members to be removed without cause. The same bill was filed last year by Gallé’s predecessor, Rep. Paul Hollis, and was killed in committee.

Hollis’ bill was drafted with the support of David Cougle, a far-right activist with the St. Tammany Library Accountability Project. The group is responsible for more than 150 book challenges in the conservative parish, though members later withdrew them in favor of seeking a change in state law.

Cougle, now a parish councilman, has angered some of his new colleagues with his dogged advocacy to remove St. Tammany’s current library board.

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