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House speaker, majority leader urge APLS to address library controversy

The House leaders threatened to use budgetary authority and statutory power to address the controversy if the APLS does not act.

APLS Chair Ronald Snider asks Clean Up Alabama leader Hannah Rees to stop reading an explicit excerpt at the board's meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 13. Chris Tarantino
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Local fights over content in library books targeted at minors has been building up momentum to a statewide issue—and House Speaker Nathaniel Ledbetter, R-Rainsville, and House Majority Leader Scott Stadthagen, R-Hartselle, have now joined the chorus of Republican leaders calling for the issue to be addressed.

In a letter received at the Alabama Public Library Service executive board meeting Wednesday, Ledbetter urged the board to “immediately focus upon resolving the ongoing controversies regarding inappropriate material being made available to children and young readers in libraries across the state.”

“As you are well aware, parents across the state whose taxes fund our public libraries have expressed their concerns through countless calls, letters, emails, protests, and rallies, but the APLS and various library directors have collectively shrugged their shoulders and turned a blind eye to what I believe are the well-justified concerns being expressed,” Ledbetter wrote.

At its last board meeting, the APLS board unanimously approved a motion by member John Wahl, chair of the Alabama Republican Party, to request an opinion from Attorney General Steve Marshall on just how far the agency’s authority reaches to dictate content at local libraries. That request can now be fully processed, as the board approved the minutes Wednesday.

While the board waits out the opinion, Wahl made another motion Wednesday that would allow parents to flag books as potentially inappropriate to the APLS, which would then collate the flagged titles and include them in a list that includes which page numbers include the potentially objectionable content. The board unanimously approved the motion, which does not require any action from libraries in response to the list.

Instead, Wahl said the list will serve as a resource for libraries to review the titles and detmeurine whether they should remain on the shelves, and for which audiences.

The organization Clean Up Alabama, which started as Clean Up Prattville, has listed 100 books on its website as inappropriate for minors, including at least 44 books challenged at the Autauga-Prattville Public Library.

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Members of Clean Up Alabama, alongside Rep. Susan Dubose, R-Hoover, continued to call on the APLS to cut all ties with the American Library Association, and now included the Alabama Library Association after the association reiterated its commitment to the freedom to read. Rep. Jerry Starnes, R-Prattville; Ben Harrison, R-Elkmont and Rep. Mark Gidley, R-Gadsden, were also in attendance but did not speak.

In a letter to the board, Stadthagen said he had planned to be there, but had “unavoidable scheduling conflicts.”

“Ongoing efforts by those on the left to inculcate our children with the transgender agenda and other radical political and cultural messaging mean parents may no longer allow their children to roam freely among the age appropriate stacks and let their imaginations be piqued by the stories of wonder that books contain,” Stadthagen wrote.

“Inculcate” is a word meaning very similar to “indoctrinate.” Stadthagen indicated that libraries in Alabama contain “inappropropriate, controversial, and even pornographic” books.

Stadthagen said in his letter that the library board should be helping libraries consider what is and isn’t appropriate and suggest “reasonable screening procedures.” He said instead that “APLS Director Nancy Pack seems to have embraced the most extremist positions of the American Library Association and its self-proclaimed ‘Marxist lesbian’ president.”

“In my view, Director Pack and APLS have not demonstrated even a hint of leadership much less resources and programming with regard to protecting our children from material that is clearly inappropriate for certain age groups.”

Pack said in Wednesday’s meeting that the ALA is a professional organization, not a governing body, and APLS and member libraries are free to “pick and choose” what they get from ALA. But completely ignoring all aspects of the ALA would come at a cost, Pack said, as the organization provides valuable resources for potential programs and has helped in scoring grants such as the distribution of millions of dollars worth of computers. 

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She also noted that the “self-proclaimed Marxist lesbian” president of the ALA, Emily Drabinski, is just one person, with a one-year term, and that the ALA council determines what actions the full organization takes. Members of Clean Up Alabama attended the ALGOP summer meeting and passed out a resolution calling on the APLS to disaffiliate with the ALA, following the lead of Montana.

Wahl took issue with Drabinski’s Marxist leanings.

“Marxism wants to destroy families, local communities and faith,” Wahl said. “Americans have long stood for the opposite: keeping a strong family and protecting our children. It’s a tragedy that we have seen the ALA adopt an agenda that supports Marxism. That’s the bigger issue here—the agenda towards Marxism that should concern every single Alabamian and American.”

Wahl emphasized numerous times both at the board meeting and at a press conference following the meeting that he and his colleagues are not interested in book banning, but in keeping the books out of sections for children.

“Parents still have access to it if they want to buy this for children, but we don’t want to have it in libraries where innocent children can stumble upon it without knowing what’s in it,” Wahl said.

Considering Wahl specifically said that parents could still “buy” the books, APR asked Wahl to clarify whether he meant removing the books from the library completely.

“No, this would removed from the children’s sections,” Wahl said. “That would be my main concern. Libraries should be a safe spot for children.Parents should not have to worry about them stumbling across something that would be inappropriate for a child to see.”

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Wahl said moving the books to an adult section would be sufficient even though minors are free to roam and read or check out books from the adult section; he said the concern is children coming across the material in a section designated for them.

APR asked Wahl if he would distance himself and this movement from Prattville residents who wrote on library reconsideration forms to completely remove the books from the library or even destroy them.

“Well, first of all, I can absolutely understand the frustration from parents who have gotten more and more frustrated in Prattville,” Wahl said. “You know, I’ve not seen those comments, so at this time I don’t want to address that without seeing the exact comments and what they were asking for, calling for.”

APR asked Wahl where he thinks the line should ultimately be drawn on what content is inappropriate for children.

“I think explicit sexual content of any kind is inappropriate for children,” Wahl said. “Throughout time, we have always protected children from that explicit content, whether in movies, video games, throughout all genres. We protect children from things that are inappropriate.”

Other content that Wahl said children should be shielded from include “racism, bullying, and alcohol, tobacco and drug use.

“These are all things where we are all on the same page on most of these,” Wahl said. “We don’t want to encourage children to engage in or to be involved in activities that are harmful to them.”

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APR asked whether it would be inappropriate to graphically describe situations like the ones he discussed when the context is obviously not promoting the harmful activities.

“I mean, obviously, that is an issue,” Wahl said. “I think the biggest thing here though is, a lot of times you don’t want something that is so explicitly sexual, putting that into the mind of a child is what creates the concern, you know—even if it’s not glorifying it or praising it, you still have that concern of that is should not be directly put in front of children or encouraging them in any way.”

Hannah Rees, leader of Clean Up Alabama, had read an excerpt from “Tricks” by Ellen Hopkins to the board earlier in the meeting. The excerpt she read was an explicit depiction of a teen forced into prostitution by poverty, and her rape by an adult man. 

Chairman Ronald Snider attempted to cut Rees off, but she continued reading until he cut her off a second time.

“I think you’re out of order, at this point,” Snider said. “We clearly get the gist that this is clearly inappropriate.”

The reading by Rees of an explicit scene of sexual abuse is the latest in the line of such public readings–Amanda Dasinger read aloud an excerpt from “Boy Toy” Monday at the Fairhope City Council meeting, which tells of a 12-year-old boy groomed into a relationship with an adult female teacher. Ozark-Dale County Library Board member Monica Carroll read an excerpt from “The Mirror Season” in which a teen girl is sexually assaulted by two teen boys. Councilwoman Leah Harlow later posted on Facebook that the excerpt was “pure smut.” 

None of these book promote the sexual abuse in question and, in fact, are clearly opposed to it. The graphic descriptions seem intended to horrify, not to arouse.

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Michael Cairns, vice-chair of the Ozark-Dale Public Library board, said he is a registered Republican, a father of six, and a Christian conservative—and he is against what Clean Up Alabama and some Republican leaders have been calling for.

He criticized Mayor Mark Blankenship for resorting to “threats and coercion” in his attempt to have all LGBTQ+ books moved to the adult section, including threatening to defund the library. He also said the books challenged by Commissioner Adam Enfinger, of which he had only read excerpts, were taken out of context.

“And if you don’t believe someone can read a book and get a different meaning, explain why there are over 200 different Christian religions in the United States,” Cairns quipped.

Ledbetter and Stadthagen also threatened budgetary retaliation against APLS, or legislation, if it does not address the library issues.

“The controversies surrounding APLS and local libraries remain on the radar of House republicans, many of whom have expressed great concern,” Stadthagen wrote. “We stand ready, if necessary, to take action through legislation, our budgetary authority, or both, but you hold in your hands the opportunity to negate the need.”

Clean Up Alabama has already laid out its state legislative plans in an email obtained by APR: jailing librarians who distribute “material harmful to minors” to minors, and redefining “material harmful to minors” to match the content they have found objectionable in library books which includes sexual orientation and gender ideology.

The plan to redefine “material harmful to minors” would come through an attachment to last session’s HB401, better known as the “Drag Show Bill.” Stadthagen did not carry HB401 last session—that was Rep. Arnold Mooney, R-Indian Springs—but Stadthagen was a co-sponsor and personally vowed to push the bill through in the 2024 session. In the same interview, he gave his support to the same Prattville parents who would become Clean Up Alabama.

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Lauren Boone, representing another Prattville-based group by the name of “Read Freely Alabama,” said that the messaging of the parties campaigning against the books is a cover for something more sinister.

“It sounds so pretty when you say it’s about protecting the children,” Boone said. “That’s what it’s being marketed as, but underneath, its anti-LGBTQ+ community … I want everybody to remember what’s really going on here.”

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

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