Tuesday, June 18, 2024

MY TURN: A CLN trustee's view from the inside

by TIM PLASS/Guest Opinion
| May 16, 2024 1:00 AM

Serving as a Community Library Network trustee has been challenging during my first 10 months in the office. In May 2023, voters clearly chose Tom Hanley and myself, by a large majority, to do the work we told them we would do. The majority obviously desired to have us remove the obscene books from minors’ sections of the libraries.  

That job has proven to be very difficult. The courts and library industry are stacked against us. The 1973 Supreme Court ruling in Miller vs California resulted in the universally devastating Miller Test, which prevents the removal of a book from a public library that has cultural, scientific or artistic value “when taken as a whole,” even if some or many of the pages are obscene. Staff and citizens form their own opinions, but ultimately, a judge must rule on each book for certainty. If a library removes a book that a judge later decides does not meet the Miller Test, the court will order that it be restored to the library, lest First Amendment rights be violated by the government (public library) removing material that had been available to the public.  

The library industry, guided by the American Library Association, has translated the Miller Test to their criteria of never removing a book based on its content. They forbid judging a book by its content as a measure to ensure never failing the Miller Test. Most library staff in the nation now equate the public’s request to remove a book based on its content with topic restriction (content-based discrimination) as unlawful. Repeated public comments to the legislature by librarians reassert this.  

The new Idaho library law, HB710, relies on the Miller Test and includes specific “harmful to minors” definitions. It requires books to be moved out of minor areas or even removed from the library if the material is harmful to minors and adds fines to a library district that fails to comply.  

How can CLN deal with this situation? The recent precedent-setting court case of public libraries in Llano County, Texas, gave a big hint: “Libraries have wide discretion with their selection and acquisition policies,” but the withdrawal policies are governed by the Miller Test” and First Amendment. So, CLN is considering a separate selection and acquisition policy with tighter definitions to prevent the purchase of books voters don’t want. The courts cannot force CLN to buy books or material the community does not want with our budget.  

Moving books from one section to another is not something the courts have ruled on. CLN could use the newer (1982) Supreme Court “PICO” case: a book that is “pervasively vulgar,” e.g., the stink of a skunk in the crawl space pervades the whole house, or even if “the vulgarity is concentrated in a single poem, a single chapter or a single page, yet still be inappropriate” can be removed. This newer SCOTUS case could be the basis of moving books from one section to another and to avoid interventions with judicial decisions.  

Accomplishing these changes is a challenge, with some staff, trustees and public attendees disagreeing with proposed policies. Some are afraid that CLN will remove their “essential” sex education books with detailed instruction. Many tend to redefine minors as 0-12 years because they need protection, but then, presumably, imply that those 13-17 should be able to access obscenity. Trustees who don’t agree are called “evil” and “must be stopped.” Spreading stories about us violating Open Meeting Law, falsely accusing us of colluding together at coffee shops or our suggesting that legal counsel provide private, written attorney-client advice in public meetings is used to shame the conservative trustees.  

How should the board handle CLN’s government-run ICRMP insurance when ICRMP tries to dictate what the board can do with policies and reduces CLN liability coverage from $3M to $0.5M with no reduction in premium? The board majority asked for staff to solicit multiple competitive commercial bids, yet we are chastised when only a single bid was received.  

Hiring an attorney who cooperates with the development of new policies is criticized as “irresponsible spending.” The board’s reduction in the budget was necessary to control rapidly increasing non-literary social programs that many incorrectly prioritized. Our oversight of the restoration of water-damaged facilities was crucial to maintaining the CLN budget.  

Are these examples of “lawless actions,” “destroying our libraries,” or trustees working for the voters? Don’t let the “Library Alliance of North Idaho” mislead you. 

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Tim Plass is a Community Library Network trustee.