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WATCH | Library director says new law may lead to ‘frivolous challenges’

by James Leigh | April 1, 2023 at 4:05 a.m.
Garland County Library Director Adam Webb discusses the impact Senate Bill 81 will have on the library due to its passage by the state legislature. - Photo by Lance Porter of The Sentinel-Record

Out of the 10 million items checked out over the past 13 years at the Garland County Library, only 11 challenges have been brought up, according to Garland County Library Director Adam Webb.

But with the passage of Senate Bill 81 on Tuesday, Webb says he is concerned it will create an influx of book challenges by nonresidents.

"I went back and looked through our records," Webb said. "We've had 11 book challenges out of the last 10 million checkouts that we've had. So you're talking about a literal one-in-a-million situation. It's been my worry all along that this is going to open the door for people who don't live in Garland County to waste the time of the Garland County Library employees and the Garland County Quorum Court.

"My plan as far as that goes, if someone from outside of the county challenges materials, I will deny their requests due to standing. They don't have the right to challenge books here because they are not affected by books that are on our shelves. And if they want to challenge that in court, so be it. If they can get this law in front of some judges faster than other parties can, more power to them."

Webb said the library is not rushing to make any drastic changes to its policy as he expects a legal challenge before it is enacted in late June or early July, but noted the current policies will be reviewed to make sure they are in line with the bill.

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"First off, I'm gonna wait to see if there is a legal challenge," he said. "I'm pretty sure there will be, although I have not really been involved in much of that discussion. But if there is an injunction on the bill, then of course, it won't take effect.

"But as far as kind of planning our process, we're going to review our policies, make sure that we're in alignment with the proposed changes in SB81, and then, hopefully, I'll have a chance to talk with the quorum court about what this will mean for them as well."

County Judge Darryl Mahoney said he plans to bring Webb before the quorum court to discuss the new law.

"I may actually have him come speak to them as well because he's studied this hard, and he's been over there at the Legislature numerous times to speak to it," he said. "He's a goldmine of knowledge about it right now."

While SB81 does not clearly state that an employee with a library degree is among the committee, Webb said the Garland County Library's current policy is to have at least one "degreed librarian" on the committee. The library currently has eight people on its staff of approximately 50 with library degrees, although he noted some employees are currently pursuing library degrees.

"I would like that assurance that a degreed librarian is doing the reviews, which is our current policy," he said. "It says that at least one qualifying librarian is reviewing the material. The bill requires us to have someone with subject knowledge of the books. So if it's a kid's book, it needs to be somebody from the Children's Department. If it's an adult item, then it'll be somebody from over here. Typically, we have a committee reviewing these things."

The bill's sponsor in the House, Rep. Justin Gonzales, R-Okolona, said during discussion in the March 9 House Judiciary Committee that libraries with a book that is "removed" from an area that is accessible to minors can "keep it behind the desk, or something." Webb said that is not possible due to rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court.

"I already know from my education and from reading relevant court cases that putting material behind the desk is unconstitutional," he said. "That is an unconstitutional barrier to protected speech. So if it's deemed harmful to minors by the quorum court and put behind the desk and then an adult can't access it, we have now infringed on the First Amendment rights of adults to check out material in the library that's protected speech."

Webb said that even if the online catalog of materials notes an item is located behind the desk, that is still a violation.

"People who are browsing the library don't even know that those materials exist because they're not in the place that they should be -- that we've made some sort of subjective determination that those materials need to be hidden from public view, and the courts have deemed that that's wrong," he said. "This is not my personal opinion on the matter. This is what the courts have told us is appropriate and constitutional, which is what my job requires me to do."

Even if it were legal, Webb said he has high school students who also work at the library, which would keep items from being held behind the desk.

Mahoney said he is still concerned about the quorum court making "a judicial decision" regarding library materials.

"If it happens, then what we're going to have is a legislative body making a judicial decision, and I'm kind of concerned that's unconstitutional," he said. "The judiciary has definitions for how to define what obscene material is, and it's a legislative body. They have no judicial authority whatsoever, so I feel like it's going to be challenged pretty quickly."

If the quorum court were to find a book to be "harmful to minors," Webb said there would need to be an area with someone there to check identification for anyone wanting access.

"I don't have a room that isn't accessible by people under the age of 18," he said. "I'm not a 1980s video store with a beaded curtain in the back corner for adult-only materials. We're a public facility that, aside from the staff areas, are open to anyone and everyone."

Mahoney said a school library in Utah recently fielded a challenge about the Bible under a similar law.

"Just imagine if two people in the library had to read the Bible in its entirety to decide whether there was obscene material in there or not," he said. "That's a time-consuming process, and depending on how many more are challenged, I can see it literally taking two full-time people to just do that.

Webb agreed, noting a single book challenge in Florida cost $30,000 in staff hours and having to purchase additional copies for the staff to read.

"I don't really want to pay three full-time employees to read the Bible cover to cover while they're on the clock," he said. "I don't think Garland County wants me to do that. I don't think the people of Garland County want me wasting their taxpayer dollars on frivolous challenges, but this bill requires us to read those things cover to cover."

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