Months of debate over how the Autauga-Prattville Public Library should handle books with challenged content came to a head Tuesday night.
The council ultimately voted 4-3 against authorizing Mayor Bill Gillespie to sign a contract for services with the library that would, as written, effectively eliminate the youth section of the library and require some content to be restricted for patrons 18+ only.
It was a contentious road to get to that point. Citizens in opposition to the contract conducted a peaceful walk from the library to the county commission meeting (which came an hour before council) and then back to the council to show disapproval of the proposal.
The commission didn’t even take the contract up on its agenda. APR has heard from sources close to the situation that the county is not sure if the contract would be considered legal, and is also generally upset at the city for pushing for it.
Clean Up Alabama did not appear to do anything of note before or at the event, despite sharing in a previous newsletter that they were planning some kind of “surprise element.”
During the public comment section on the agenda, opposition to the contract far outweighed support, and Clean Up Alabama members were not fully in support of the contract either.
But when it came time to consider the proposal itself, the council started out with comments from two of the three members who ultimately voted in favor of the contract: Blair Gornto and John Chambers. Tommy Merrick also voted in favor of the contract.
“I feel confident I’m voting the true majority of my district,” said Gornto, who has missed the past two months of council meetings while stationed on duty with the National Guard. “Fresh off my service in that capacity, I’ve realized we should not see this role as a brute position of power, but represent our district’s interest.”
Gornto said he has been “taken aback” by threats he said have been made “on both sides of this issue,” particularly threats to not reelect councilors who vote against the constituent’s wishes.
“If you can be swayed by votes and promises of reelection, you have no right to sit over this Dias,” Gornto said.
While many members spoke out against restricting materials because it takes away the rights of parents to guide their children, Gornto said he doesn’t see it that way.
“I do agree that it’s up to the parents to decide what their children read and learn,” Gornto said. “That, in my opinion, is what this contract for services is doing.”
John Chambers, who sponsored the contract for services, said that he had “friends on both sides of this.”
“Those who truly know me know my heart came from a good place with good intentions,” Chambers said. “I want to emphasize my intent was never to defund books or defund the library or ban a specific group of ideology. It was about more consistency between written and digital materials. 13 seems too young for this type of material and I was looking for a way to make that a little bit more reasonable.”
Chambers explained that the library has filters on its internet to keep children from seeing explicit content, and that should be applied to written materials in the library as well.
He also echoed concerns of threats, stating that someone showed up at his house unannounced recently and said that is why he had stopped returning calls and texts on the issue.
“At some point, everyone on the council has been threatened,” Chambers said.
Marcus Jackson questioned if the city knew what the library’s plan of action would be if the contract was passed. Gillespie said he believed they had, but it was not his place to speak for them.
APR interviews with board members revealed that the board would not sign the contract as written, and would ultimately resign en masse before they would sign off on what was being asked of them.
Jackson did not make it immediately clear in his comments which way he was planning to vote.
Albert Striplin did.
“I communicated last night my position,” Striplin told the council. “From reading the contract, I don’t see any opportunity for discussion and rebuttal from the library board. It seems it is an all or nothing event.”
Striplin also said the state of technology and cell phones being in children’s hands makes the challenges over books moot.
Gornto cut in again after Striplin’s comments.
“This contract is putting the responsibility back in the parents’ hands and not librarians’ hands,” Gornto said.
Merrick said that someone is going to be happy, and someone is not, but pleaded for peace between the sides.
“We are a family in this community,” Merrick said.
Then Council President Lora Lee Boone took her turn at the mic. Boone had notably told citizens they were “talking to the wind” when asking them to interfere with the library board, and that comment had come back up during the public comment section as citizens criticized the council for backing down and deciding to consider inject themselves into library policies.
But Boone revealed that she has not come off that stance that what has been asked for is an overreach of the government.
“I look at how does this decision affect the choices of citizens,” Boone said. “In this case, more government regulation means less choice for the citizens. The first amendment is at play here.”
With that, the council took the vote, with Chambers, Gornto and Merrick raising their hand in favor of the contract. Then Striplin, Jackson, Boone and Robert Strichik raised their hands against the motion. And the contract for services for the library was defeated.
The council had already passed a budget earlier in the evening that fully funded the library; without the contract on the table, the library will simply continue to operate as it has in the past, unless and until the city and county governments can go back to the table and find another solution.
Public sides heavily in opposition to moving books
By APR’s count two-thirds of the 24 speakers during the public comment portion spoke against the contract, and seemed to also get the louder applause from a packed council chamber.
Cathee Gipson, whose father once served on the city council, admonished the council has handled the situation.
“I’m not here because my 31-year-old son, the apple of my eye, is gay,” Gibson said. “I’m here to speak on the way you have handled this disgusting display of bigotry.”
Gipson said she had been asked by some council members, “what would your dad have done in this situation?”
“My staunchly conservative daddy probably would have met the young lady (who started this) and suggested a book burning and offered to buy a match,” Gipson said. “He would have given me an old ‘whoop your tail” speech’; but let me tell you what he wouldn’t have done. He wouldn’t have told people for months that the council doesn’t govern the library to suddenly changing his mind and holding a secret meeting. He would not sit up there with his nose in the air looking down on these people like they’re not worth his time.”
James Diamond, the 12-year-old son of Read Freely Alabama founder Samantha Diamond, told the council they should “find a better solution; and fast.”
“People my age should be able to decide what they read, especially books designed for my age group,” Diamond said.
His mother chided the council, saying this contract would “subject the collection to the whims of whoever complains.”
She thanked the council for at least stopping short of singling out LGBTQ books, but questioned “What books will they hate five years from now?”
“You’re giving them a loaded gun to hold to the head of every librarian,” Diamond said.
Hannah Rees, executive director, asked the council to “consider all content that’s inappropriate for children,” asking for the council to limit “access” but not “availability” to books dealing with sexual orientation and “radical gender ideology.”
Herman Smith told the council about his 10-year-old grandchild who has a friend that is like family who has two moms.
“If his friend wants to read about similar families, that should be in the library,” Smith said.
He also called the opposition to the books a “proxy.”
“There are groups of people who want to sow disruption,” Smith said. “If we cede to them here, we might be asked to cede and cede again. We’ve gotten on for decades the way we were, we can do it again.”
Matthew Huffman, a 15-year-old resident, pointed out that the city’s only bookstore, Books-A-Million, recently closed, leaving few options for book-lovers outside the library.
“The library will give them all the books they need for no money at all,” Huffman said.
He also warned the council about the history of censorship.
“There have been many cases in history of moral authoritarians deciding what is right or wrong,” Huffman said. “That decision should be up to the parents.”