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Prattville Library Board returns books to shelf, declines to move others

The board previously decided to move six books within the children’s room of the library to a higher shelf.

A Prattville citizen speaks before the Autauga-Prattville Library Board in the first-ever public comment session due to recent book challenges. Jacob Holmes/APR

Tensions continue in Prattville over certain content on the shelves of areas intended for minors, but the Library Board decided Thursday not to move any of the four books before them.

The board previously decided to move six books within the children’s room of the library to a higher shelf further away from young children, and in a nonfiction section that corresponds with books on sexual orientation. 

But the library later moved those books behind the circulation desk after continued pressure from some parents in the community, which the library has called harassment.

Library Board returns books to shelf, leaves other challenged books in place

The board on Thursday unanimously decided to move those books back to that shelf, a decision that is set to last for the next five years.

The board also considered four more books that had been challenged, and kept all of them in the same location at the recommendation of the committee that reviewed the books.

On one book, “Nick and Charlie” by Alice Oseman, the library board decided to assign a sticker to the book that designates it for “teens.” That label currently applies to children aged 14-18, but that could change at the request of Prattville Mayor Bill Gillespie, who proposed a change earlier in the meeting.

Gillespie’s proposal would create a clearer separation of what books are intended for 13- to 15-year-olds and what books are intended for 16- to 18-year-olds. Board member Wayne Lambert suggested a committee of Gillespie, a board member, and a member of the Autauga County Commission consider the proposal. Lambert agreed to be the board member to serve on that committee.

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“One of the reasons for that is that we empower and feel like our 16-year-olds have the mental capacity to navigate a 3,000-pound vehicle in our community,” Gillespie said. “I feel like at the same age they should be able to navigate and should have the mental capacity to handle a three-pound book.”

Gillespie said if that is not appropriate, he would suggest upping the young adult section to 18 and up. The board in later discussions seemed to favor making the young adult section 16-18 and also appeared to consider using labels on the books to delineate the age ranges rather than separate sections.

Gillespie’s comments were briefly interrupted by a woman who spoke out of turn on several occasion, and called him a “bigot” for proposing any changes to the library board classification. The woman was asked to leave the meeting and eventually did leave on her own accord, only after Gillespie had called police to remove her.

Gillespie said that if the library needed extra shelving to make separating young adult content feasible, the city could likely find money to make that possible.

Meanwhile, grumbles from the concerned group still in attendance indicated that won’t be an acceptable solution.

Citizens speak out in first public comment period at a Library Board meeting

Gillespie’s comments came after an hour of public comment, the first instance of public comments at an Autauga-Prattville Public Library Board meeting since it adopted a policy for such comments at a special called meeting last month.

Citizens on both sides of the issue appeared to be fairly evenly represented.

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The first speaker was Samantha Diamond, a Prattville woman who started a group called “Read Freely Prattville” to support the library in its general decision thus far not to reclassify challenged materials.

“I highly value my God-given rights to read what I choose to and think critically about it and decide for myself whether I agree,” Diamond said. “Public libraries are a repository of information made freely available to everyone for exactly that purpose. There is content in the library’s collection with which I do not agree but I would never advocate for the removal of that content, because to do so is an insult to our shared American values, and those values also give me the right as a parent and the responsibility to monitor the things that influence my children—my responsibility and no one else’s.”

Matt and Laura Clark, a married couple who are both attorneys, spoke in favor of moving the books.

Matt Clark, founder and president of the Alabama Center for Law and Liberty, told the Library Board his nonprofit conservative firm already has one victory against the City of Prattville. The firm represented a Millbrook man that Prattville police arrested on a charge of disorderly conduct following an argument over his use of a sound amplifier while street preaching in front of the Prattville Target. The charges were dropped.

“So when it comes to free speech cases, the score is: Us-1, City of Prattville, nothing,” Clark said.

Both Clarks talked about the difference between free speech under the First Amendment vs governmental speech to make an argument that the library board would not be violating the law if they chose to move the books within the library.

Matt Clark also indicated his firm hasn’t sued the library board because of this distinction.

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“And by the way, that’s why the ACLL has not sued the library board yet, because this is government speech,” Clark said. “We don’t have grounds to sue you right now.”

But Clark argued the American Civil Liberties Union wouldn’t have grounds to sue the library either if the books are simply moved within the library.

“Even if it were somehow free speech—because the ACLU likes to scratch the law beyond what it says … We still would probably be OK if all you did was move it to a section that was age-appropriate.

“So once again, nobody’s asking you to burn books, throw them out of the library, ban them—nobody’s done that. We’re just asking you to move them to a different section that’s age-appropriate so people know what they’re getting, rather than checking out a kid’s book and getting ambushed at home.”

One woman, Caryl Lawson, opened up about her upbringing in a conservative home where sex could not be discussed, in the same environment in which she claimed to be groomed and abused by a step-father and raped by two other men.

“We didn’t talk about genitals or use the anatomically correct names for them,” Lawson said. “There was an invasive and oppressive culture of shame around sex and my body. I didn’t feel empowered to make my own decisions about who I want to hug me or touch me. When I was 9, my divorced single mom remarried. He was respected in his Baptist Church. He started grooming me immediately; by 10, he sexually abused me. It continued for five years and the physical and psychological abuse continued another three years beyond. I was trapped, terrified. I tried to disclose it to a psychiatrist at age 13, but my parents had convinced her I was a liar, so she broke the law and did not report. I was raped twice by other men at age 13. And that same year, I tried to commit suicide. I survived. 

“Why am I telling you this? Because this is why we need books about sexuality and consent and bodily autonomy in our public library. This is why we need to be unafraid to have conversations about sex and sexuality with our children. Because if I had been taught about consent and bodily autonomy at a young age, maybe I could have recognized what was happening to me, and knowing that it wasn’t my fault. If I had access to the books, I might have been empowered to protect myself. I might have had the language and the vocabulary to find and use my voice to advocate for myself.”

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Sexually explicit content or LGBTQ viewpoint discrimination?

The primary group challenging the books, dubbed “Clean Up Prattville” has mainly emphasized  books on its webpage that include sexually explicit descriptions in books within the young adult fiction section, calling these books “obscene” and “pornographic.” But speakers at this meeting, and at other council meetings, have also expressed problems with books based not on sexually explicit content, but for discussing LGBTQ issues including same-sex relationships and depictions of transgender children.

Kendra Bethel said she reviewed four books indicated for children under 12 that promoted “transgenderism.”

“These books tell them they can do something that is scientifically impossible,” Bethel said. 

Sarah Sanchez, however, said the books being challenged that include LGBTQ content also contain sexually explicit content.

“We’re not here to restrict certain groups,” Sanchez said. “What we oppose is graphic depictions of things that are not appropriate … The answer, perhaps, is to donor homework and find (LGBTQ) stories without exposing minors to all these pornographic details.”

That includes topics like consent, Sanchez said. She also said drag queen story hours are “by nature, a sexual-themed activity,” and said if the library doesn’t have children’s books with graphic (visual) depictions, “we just don’t have them yet.”

New library director Andrew Foster told the board there have been 11 further challenges filed since the last board meeting, many of which are thicker chapter books that may take some time for review. That would bring the current total of formally challenged books to 21, with Clean Up Prattville claiming over 100 books on the agenda to challenge.

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Jacob Holmes is a reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can reach him at [email protected]

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