A campaign to censor certain books in the teen sections of Alabama libraries has moved to Fairhope, with numerous members on both sides of the aisle speaking out at a city council meeting Monday.
The meeting echoes of the book challenges in Prattville, albeit this movement appears to have burst out all at once instead of a steadier buildup over several months.
The group that started in Prattville began calling itself “Clean Up Prattville” sometime over the summer, and now has transitioned into “Clean Up Alabama” as a statewide organization seeking to change the policy of the Alabama Public Library Service and co-opt a 2023 bill to include jail time for librarians who give LGBTQ+ books to minors.
After more than an hour of public comment, Fairhope city council members hinted at the same thing that Prattville city council members had.
“Quite honestly, we don’t have any input on what the library carries as books,” Council President Jay Robinson told a citizen concerned about protecting the library. “The library has a board … A request was made to me to put this on the agenda, and my response was this is not a city council issue; this is a library issue. The library has a board and I would expect everybody who has expressed an opinion tonight will express that opinion to the board to make that decision … While we appreciate everybody being here and expressing their opinion, it doesn’t make it a city council issue.”
The comment is reminiscent of Prattville City Council President Lora Lee Boone, who told Councilman Blair Gornto that parents speaking against the challenged books in front of the council were “speaking to the wind” but noted the council’s public comment period allows residents to speak about items not on the city’s agenda.
Brian Dasinger of Faith Family Freedom Coaltion took the mic first to explain to the council his opposition to some books in the teen section of the Fairhope Public Library. APR does not currently have a list of the 55 books that have apparently been challenged.
“Children under the age of 18 are still in the developing stage with their minds,” Dasinger said. “Many of the books contained in the library have little to no redeeming benefits. We fear that the impact of these books to young adults and juveniles may result in mental health issues and unnecessary loss of innocence.”
Dasinger said the books are “basically pornographic in nature” and said they “describe sexual content between children and children, and children and adults, depiction of rape of children by adults and even examples of bestiality.”
Dasinger emphasized that his group “doesn’t want to ban books” and touted the now-familiar line that moving the books from the young adult section to adult does not amount to censorship.
But in addition to the content of challenged books, Dasinger expressly asked the library board to fire teen librarian Allyson Cooper Russell due to her personal political beliefs.
“In reviewing her Facebook page, we found posts supporting mandatory masking, the LBGTQ movement, Black Lives Matter—which has been exposed as one of the biggest frauds ever perpetrated on the American public, pro-abortion and other Marxist ideologies,” Dasinger said. “Her views do not represent the ideals of the majority of Fairhope residents and we would like the library board to strongly consider replacing her with someone who is more representative of the family values that most of our residents encompass.”
If the connection to the statewide movement wasn’t clear before, Dasinger practically name-dropped the organization at the end of his remarks.
“We are asking the city council and the Fairhope library board to clean up our library,” Dasinger said.
Anne Johnson, chair of the Fairhope Library board of trustees, said the recent spate of challenges “kind of feels like a coordinated and targeted attack on the library.”
“Many of these books are for young adults and the request is to move them from the teen section to the adult section, or otherwise sequester them in the library; thus rendering them inaccessible to their primary audience,” Johnson said. “This is a form of censorship … No one person or group has the right to dictate what books and information have access to. This is a form of censorship … The Fairhope library board is unanimous in supporting the right to read for all Fairhope citizens.”
A bit later in the comment session, Brian Dasinger’s wife Amanda Dasinger told the council about the book “Boy Toy” by Barry Lyga, which tells of a 12-year-old boy groomed by a female teacher into a sexual relationship.
Amanda Dasinger proceeded to read aloud certain excerpts, self-censoring cure words by spelling them out. The excerpts appear to be written from the perspective of a groomed 12-year-old boy who believes he has power in the imbalanced relationship. Based on a synopsis of the book, APR believes the young male protagonist at some point realizes he has been sexually abused and overcomes the situation.
Randall Wirght, president of the Friends of the Fairhope Library, said “books on controversial and challenging topics create bridges for difficult conversations with parents and trusted adults like the librarians at our library.”
“Efforts to remove or reposition books that one person does not like cannot be approved,” Wright said. “Each of us has the right to not read a book we personally find objectionable. And as a parent, I had the right to make those decisions for my daughters when they were young. Those were my choices, but my decisions and choices cannot, and should not, be forced on another parent.”
Wright pointed out that the library’s policy on challenging books has been in place for 20 years and gives patrons the right to challenge a book in good faith.
“When we censor, we discourage open discussion instead of building the capacity to think for ourselves,” Wright said. “And if the democracy this country was founded on is to survive, it must develop citizens who can think for themselves.”
Charles Wilson, whose wife Carol spoke earlier during the session, dismissed a Facebook post claiming that “the clean up crew was coming today to ban CRT and to ban LGBTQ books.”
“That is a falsehood that was promoted online, Facebook, by a Fairhope public library employee,” Wilson said. “It made me mad because that’s not why we’re here … A lot of folks like smut and pornographic, it’s a big industry … The library is not a place for smut for children.”
Carol Wilson referenced BookLooks, a book rating site created by Moms for Liberty member Emily Maikisch, according to business filings. According to a report from a far-right outlet, a Baldwin County resident just started a Moms for Liberty chapter in the county in August.
The ratings site has also been used extensively in the 48 book challenges at the Prattville library, even in cases in which the rating system seems to agree that the books are acceptable for teen audiences.
Carol Wilson, a former library board trustee herself, said that she took issue with the library requiring the challenger of a book to fully read the book to understand its context, arguing that the library does not read each book it places on the shelf, but relies on outside sources.
“My consideration in moving forward to read these books was one I have no interest in reading smut,” Wilson said. “If I subjected myself to read the entire content of the book and filed a reconsideration form, the request to relocate the books o the adult section would more than likely be denied based upon the library’s policy of diversity, equity and inclusion.”
Wilson echoed the claim that the books have material “that may be considered obscene according to federal law.”
Dev Wakely told the council there is a slippery slope ahead.
“What you’ve heard is that they’re not here to ban books; that’s what they tell you now,” Wakeley said. “But you’ve also heard some other words that are very concerning from these people. What you hear from Mr. Dasinger is that these books have ‘little to no value’ and that these books are ‘obscene under federal law’—both of those things are, of course, false—but what they are is the precursors to the real book bans; what these folks are setting up in the long run.”
The legal standards for obscenity and pornography, Wakeley said, “are pretty well set.”
Several students from Bayshore Christian School spoke against the challenged books.
Student McKenna Durnin told the council “When it reaches the point that these books are becoming visually explicit, or seeming as thought they belong in a high school anatomy book more than 4- to 8-year-olds, we have a problem.”
Durnin referenced several “children’s books” that she considered sexually explicit and “borderline pornographic” including Genderqueer, Flamer, Let’s Talk About It … and many others. Each one of these books is recommended for 14- to 18-year-olds, not 4- to 8-year-olds. High school students who would theoretically be viewing a high school anatomy book would likely also be 14 to 18 years old.
“When parents take their children to the library, they shouldn’t have to worry about protecting their innocence,” Durnin said.
Durnin also said removing the books does not violate the First Amendment because the books could still be purchased from bookstores or on Amazon.
“If you so badly want a book that (contains graphic violence, expresses disrespect for parents and family, is sexually explicit, exalts evil, lacks literary merit or is unsuitable for a particular age group), then you won’t have any problems driving a little further or paying a little extra money to get them that material,” Durnin said.
“There was a time when adults who gave minors access to obscene materials were determined to be sexual predators subject to criminal prosecution,” said Bayshore senior Carter Frego. “So what constitutes obscene or pornographic material—or in the vernacular, smut?”
Frego then spoke about“the Miller test,” a three-prong system to determine what constitutes obscenity and pornography.
“Some of the books that are currently in the library may, potentially, fail this test,” Frego said.
Frego listed books he thought may fail the test: Boy Toy, Doing It, The Female of the Species, The handmaid’s Tale: A graphic novel, The Hate U Give, Last Night at the Telegraph Club “and many others.”
David Gespass, who identified himself as a civil rights lawyer, said all the council has heard is “opinions and accusations.”
“The point is that speech has to take place where it matters,” “If these books are removed from the young adult sections then they are being removed from the place where their target audience is,” Gespass said. “That is suppression; that is a violation fo the Fisrt Amendment regardless … The question becomes ‘What about people that can’t afford to order books on Amazon?’ That is what the library is for.”