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As Idaho's new library law goes into effect, questions remain

by DEVIN WEEKSCAROLINE LOBSINGER
Staff Writer | June 30, 2024 1:09 AM

Seven-year-old Patrice Droesch comfortably sat with her legs folded beneath her, lingering on the pages of Brian Lies’ “Bats at the Library,” a children’s book about bats that have a grand time when they find a window at their local library has been left open one night.

Patrice’s mom, Elizabeth Droesch of Coeur d’Alene, sat at a nearby table in the Seagrave Children’s Library at the Coeur d’Alene Public Library, researching different titles.

“I was just going through all of these and reading reviews and making sure what I choose is appropriate for my kids,” she said. “It takes time.”

Droesch has three children ages 7-13 whom she homeschools.

She said their family will be impacted by House Bill 710, the "Children's School and Library Protection Act," when it goes into effect Monday.

“It impacts me in two ways,” she said. “I think one is there are materials in the library or in the kids’ section I don’t agree with maybe, especially under the realm of gender or gender identity. That’s not something I think should be so accessible for children, especially without an adult to help them process their thoughts or have conversations.

“However, I think it’s really controlling to fine librarians for something that seems to be very relative,” she said.

Droesch said she reads her Bible and she believes in raising children to know the Lord.

“But I don’t believe that we’re out here to control,” she said. “We’re not here to come and put our hands on everything and decide what’s right for everyone. I think everyone should have the freedom to choose and that parents should be involved in helping their children choose. That’s what I think.”

In Idaho, a state where freedom is a sacred right, this new law is celebrated in some circles and bemoaned in others.

House Bill 710

Following years of attempts by some Idaho legislators to impose more restrictions on library materials, Gov. Brad Little finally signed the most recent iteration of the bill into law April 10, declaring, “I signed that stinking bill.”

“Gov. Little signed House Bill 710 because he shares the Legislature’s desire to keep truly inappropriate library materials out of the hands of children,” Little’s press secretary, Madison Hardy, said in a statement to The Press. “He said in his transmittal letter for House Bill 710 that he will be watching the implementation and outcomes of the bill very closely.”

According to the Children's School and Library Protection Act — which was supported by all of Kootenai County’s elected officials — school and library staff members who provide youths with materials deemed harmful to minors can be fined $250. Patrons may now request relocation of materials to adults-only areas, and libraries will have 30 days to fulfill the request. If they fail to comply, they will incur fines and may face “any other relief available by law,” which could include “injunctive relief sufficient to prevent the defendant school or public library from violating the requirements."

A similar 2023 bill would have allowed schools and libraries to be sued for $2,500, but Little “vetoed a bill that would have created a library bounty system so egregious that smaller libraries would have been forced to close their doors to minors altogether.”

What is obscene?

According to Cornell Law, obscenity is a category of speech unprotected by the First Amendment. But definitions of pornography and obscenity can often vary.

A report released by the Boise-based Idaho Family Policy Center, however, offers insight into definitions that might apply under HB710. 

The policy center released a report in 2023 in which it found three libraries in Kootenai County — Coeur d’Alene, Post Falls and Spirit Lake — to have “obscene” materials that kids could access: “Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic” by Alison Bechdel; “All Boys Aren't Blue” by George M. Johnson; “Dreaming in Cuban” by Cristina García; and “It’s Perfectly Normal” by Robie H. Harris. These books contain themes of sex, LGBTQIA+ sexuality, gender roles, emotional abuse, dysfunctional family life, suicide and other mature concepts.

That same year, the Idaho Family Policy Center drafted language upon which HB710 was built.

Morgan MaGill, communications manager for the center, said they were approached in 2021 and 2022 by parents who were concerned children they knew had “accessed pornographic books at their local school or community library.”

“At first, we were skeptical,” she said, “but as we researched the issue, we learned that children’s access to library pornography has been a widespread problem for years now.”

MaGill said the Children’s School and Library Protection Act does not ban any books. She said the law's purpose is to ensure children will not have access to pornographic materials while using taxpayer-funded schools and libraries.

“No one should distribute pornography to children — especially not public schools and community libraries,” she said. “Parents should trust that their children will not encounter harmful pornography while making use of materials, services and programs provided by public schools and community libraries.”

Preparing for the new law

Coeur d’Alene Library Director Michael Priest said it’s difficult to predict what kind of impact this new law will have on library services, given that it has sparked varying legal opinions.

“The (Coeur d’Alene Library) Board of Trustees have opted to take a flexible approach, updating the policies that the statute requires and discussing other measures the library may take in the future,” he said. “We will be in a better position to assess the situation and make adjustments after July 1.”

The library’s board updated its Material Review Policy, Material Review and Relocation Request Form and Materials Selection and Collection Development Policy to comply with the Children’s School and Library Protection Act, Priest said.

In the last five years, two books have been challenged at the library. After thorough review, neither book was removed.

For the East Bonner County Library District, drafting the changes took dozens of hours of staff time, and their work was reviewed by the district's attorney. Still, questions remain.

"It remains to be seen how costly the impacts of this legislation may become, depending on factors such as potential court cases and the renovation of library facilities to create restricted areas with adult access only," Vanessa Velez, interim director, said in an email to board trustees. 

Each request for removal needs to be assessed on its own merits without sweeping changes to library collections, spaces or procedures, she said.

"We also need to be wary of the potential for violating citizens' First Amendment rights if we were to start preemptively sequestering or removing materials based on their subjective potential to be claimed as 'harmful to minors,'" Velez said.

She said an in-house committee is being formed to explore possible responses to the varied situations that the district may face.

"There are too many factors involved to be able to perfectly plan our response to all of them ahead of time, including potential court cases, if it comes to that," she added.

Velez said district officials don't believe its library have any materials that are harmful to minors, "but since the language in the law is vague and at times contradictory, it's hard to predict the outcome of any future court decisions," she said. "So for now, we are complying with the law via our updated policy and form."  

Elsewhere, the Community Library Network finalized a new policy as well, a process that generated two new forms: Request for Reconsideration of Material, which allows customers to request the library evaluate a specific item; and Request for Relocation of Material, which is for an item the customer believes contains material harmful to minors as defined by Idaho Code. There is a statutory time limit of 60 days from receipt of the form to completion of the review process. Both forms allow library patrons to appeal to the board of trustees should they not agree with the library’s determination, Assistant Library Director Lindsey Miller-Escarfuller said.

“CLN staff have been provided with copies of the policies and forms, and staff have received training from their managers on implementing the new policies,” Miller-Escarfuller said. “As with most changes, some staff are feeling a bit unsure of exactly what to expect when a customer turns in one of the forms. With that said, our staff are well equipped, and I know that they will do their absolute best.”

The Community Library Network has taken steps to guide customers in selecting library materials, she said.

“We have age-appropriate collections identified within the library,” Miller-Escarfuller said. “In addition, we provide parents and legal guardians with the option to obtain limited access cards which ensures children are not able to check out certain materials. The use of library materials is an individual matter. Responsibility for children’s use of library materials rests with their parents or legal guardians.”

The CLN has received 14 requests for reconsideration of materials since 2021. Five of those items were relocated within the library. An example of this would be relocating a children’s fiction book to the teen fiction section, Miller-Escarfuller said.

“We have not removed books in response to a request for reconsideration,” she said.

Opposition

The grassroots Library Alliance of North Idaho, previously known as the Community Library Network Alliance, was formed to preserve and protect North Idaho’s libraries. Its members, which number in the hundreds, believe in freedom of speech and fighting against censorship in all its forms. 

Their battle cry: “Help save our libraries.”

Steering committee member Naomi Strom, who was raised in a conservative Christian household in Hayden and works as the lead circulation specialist at the Hayden Library, said libraries are already doing what they are supposed to do.

“The purpose of our libraries is to provide free access to information and resources,” she said, speaking on her own behalf and not on behalf of the library. “Libraries are for everyone, but not every book is for everyone. We should all be allowed to decide for ourselves what we want to read.”

She said freedom of speech and free access to information is essential to the survival of democracy.

“Censoring books is un-American,” she said. “Free people read freely.”

Some people have said the implementation of HB710 won’t affect libraries if they are doing what they are supposed to be doing. Strom said that is built on a false premise.

“What they really mean is, ‘Libraries have nothing to worry about if they do what we demand,’” she said. “It’s a threat — ‘Do what we want, or we bury you in lawsuits. If you don’t remove the books we don’t like, we’ll take away your funding.’”

She said those who support this new law like to ask, “Do you think kids should have access to porn?”

“They say this because it is a conversation-ending argument,” Strom said. “Of course nobody wants that. But the assertion that libraries are providing porn to kids, and that librarians are pedophiles and groomers, is simply not true.”

Josiah Mannion, also a Library Alliance of North Idaho member and Hayden librarian speaking on his own behalf, said it is a librarian's duty to maintain "an ecosystem of open knowledge that is not hermetically sealed into a closed system. That's the point of libraries."

He said the alliance's goal is to generate support from the public to maintain an open system so people can check out whatever they want.

"An open library system is the ability to connect through difference, and the books and the resources libraries provide are that connection of difference for a lot of rural communities that don't have access to other kinds of knowledge ecosystems, knowledge of the outside world," he said. "One of the underlying principles of 710 that is being operated on in its implementation is trying to close up and seal off that openness."

In Kootenai County, some community members will spend Monday delivering handwritten notes of appreciation and home-baked cookies to local librarians. These tokens of gratitude will serve as a reminder of the invaluable contributions of librarians to their communities, according to a Tuesday news release from the Kootenai County Democrats.

“Residents are encouraged to participate by writing thank you cards to their local librarians,” the news release said. “Whether it's sharing cherished memories of time spent in the library, acknowledging the profound impact libraries have had or simply stating, ‘Thank you, we support you,’ these messages will uplift and encourage librarians during this critical time.”

    "What Makes Us Human" by Victor D.O. Santos is among the stacks in the children's library at the Coeur d'Alene Public Library.