Lafayette Library Board Grants Itself Power to Ban Books

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Danika Ellis

Associate Editor

Danika spends most of her time talking about queer women books at the Lesbrary. Blog: The Lesbrary Twitter: @DanikaEllis

The recent tsunami of book challenges, particularly to LGBTQ and POC books, has revealed the inner workings of library and school board meetings that usually go unnoticed. In Lafayette, Louisiana, years of the library board being “stacked” with conservative voices appointed by the Parish Council has resulted in a board that doesn’t serve its community on a range of issues, and its approach to book challenges is only one example.

Several books have been challenged in Lafayette public library in recent months, including This Book is Gay by Juno Dawson. In previous challenges, a subcommittee was formed to review the material being challenged and vote on whether it should remain on shelves. This Reconsideration Committee consisted of two librarians and one board member. In the past two reviews, librarians have voted to keep the book on the shelf, while the board member has sided with the challenger.

In a recent meeting, library board president Robert Judge proposed taking away all library representatives from the review process, leaving it entirely up to the board to decide whether to ban the book. After some discussion, the board voted to have the subcommittee made up of one librarian and two board members.

This effectively means the board has elected themselves the arbiters of what kind of literature should be allowed to be accessed by the public. The librarians, who are experts on this subject, will always be outnumbered on these decisions.

Under both the previous system and the new one, if the person challenging a book is not satisfied with the subcommittee’s decisions, they can appeal it to the board, who will vote on it. So, even if a board member did decide to cross the aisle and vote against banning a book, that decision would likely fall when brought in front of the entire board. (Again, librarians have no voice in the appeals process.)

There is no appeals system if the subcommittee does ban the book, however, and indeed no chance for any public input on this decision, since the review process happens behind closed doors.

Lafayette attorney Gary McGoffin argues that this violates Open Meetings state laws, which apply to any government committee with “policy making, advisory, or administrative functions,” and furthermore states that because the reconsideration committees met twice without providing advance notice to the public or posting an agenda, “any decision they made is subject to challenge and is invalid.”

Board member Stephanie Armbruster, who served as the representative of the board on previous subcommittees, said about the change, “With the current committee makeup, I don’t know that we are satisfying the people who complained.”

It may not be “satisfying” for a book you challenged to stay on the shelf, but that doesn’t indicate any problem with the process. Her statement also does not address the citizens and library users who disagree with the challenger.

Cara Chance, a representative of the library and a branch manager for the North Regional Branch in Carencro, stated that “The only reason I can think of [to change this policy] is that you want to subvert the process because you didn’t like the results of the censorship attempts.”

One resident, Lynette Mejía, said she “trusts doctors to treat her medical condition, not the hospital’s board members. Librarians are experts who have studied library science and have years of experience, while board members admitted they hadn’t read one of the books they were asked to ban.”

Mejía said she and other citizens will continue to oppose any attempts to pull books from library shelves, including filing lawsuits if necessary: “Whatever it takes to make sure all kids are represented in our libraries.”

person wearing black and gray jacket in front of bookshelf
Photo by Matthew Feeney on Unsplash

Earlier issues discussed in the meeting had several people in attendance calling out and disagreeing with library board president Judge, including LGBTQ activist Matthew Humphrey. He was asked to leave and refused, saying that he had a right to attend a public meeting and would leave only if arrested.

Several people retreated to a separate room to discuss the issue, including a deputy, the board president, the library director, and an attorney. They did not attempt to remove Humphrey after exiting the room, and the meeting continued.

Later, Michael Lunsford, the executive director of a conservative group called Citizens for a New Louisiana, rose to speak again about a book he had already attempted to have banned from the library. One of his complaints had resulted in all teen nonfiction being moved into the adult nonfiction section, including This Book is Gay.

Upon seeing Lunsford begin to speak, Humphrey let out a sarcastic “yay!” at revisiting this topic. At that point, the deputy escorted him out of the building, handcuffed him, and put him in the deputy’s vehicle. He was charged with disturbing the peace and then released. He currently has a GoFundMe to try to raise money for court costs.

Humphrey organized a Drag Queen Story Time in 2018, which was banned by the board. During that time, “All residents who wanted to use a meeting room for any purpose were made to sign a form disavowing any affiliation with Drag Queen Story Time and promising not to use the space for that purpose. The form also threatened residents that they could be sued if they used the library for that purpose.” This was only overturned after a lawsuit from the ACLU of Louisiana.

Judge was a vocal opponent of the event, and Armbruster attended a protest against Drag Queen Story Time.

a photo of library bookshelves
Photo by Emil Widlund on Unsplash

In that same meeting, Judge announced he is appointing a committee to reconsider the library system’s mission statement. The library’s mission is:

to enhance the quality of life of our community by providing free and equal access to high-quality, cost-effective library services that meet the needs and expectations of our diverse community for information, life-long learning, recreation and cultural enrichment.

Judge wants to have the “recreation and cultural enrichment” section cut out, claiming the library can cut costs if they narrow their scope, and that these are already covered by other services, like the Lafayette Science Museum and Heymann Performing Arts Center — which require payment to use.

Trying to make this change was one of his first acts when he was appointed to the board in February 2021, and despite this proposal being denied at least twice before, he’s been undeterred.

Libraries are far more than just storage space for books. They serve communities in a wide range of ways, and although they should not be expected to be all things for all people — especially without sufficient funding — the cultural and recreational aspects of public libraries are essential to their mission. Cutting these out of the mission statement invites continual carving away at library services and budgets, which are already challenging to the point of unworkable.

The change to the book challenge policy and mission statement are not the only controversies playing out in Lafayette library board meetings, however. In fact, the subject that drew several people in the crowd — including Humphrey — to heckle Judge was the building of a new library building on the north side of the city.

In 2019, more than $8 million dollars was allocated for a new library building to be constructed there — though no money was put aside for staffing it and other budget considerations. Since then, there has apparently been no progress, angering many in the community.

Seventy percent of Lafayette’s Black residents live in 25% of its land area, which is a result of a history of segregation policies, and Black community leaders are tired of waiting for a library to built in their neighborhood.

The board’s proposal to rent out a building in the meantime to serve as a makeshift library was jeered by frustrated meeting attendees, and the board agreed to start the search for land to purchase.

This isn’t the first time Book Riot has reported on questionable decisions made by the Lafayette library board. Last year, it drew criticism for opposing an event talking about the history of voting rights because it was “too left” and didn’t address “both sides.” For more on that, read Kelly Jensen’s article on the controversy.

I want to thank Claire Taylor at the Acadiana Advocate for reporting on the Lafayette library board for years. Local journalism is crucial for democracy, and it’s only through her work and others like her that we know about these kinds of things happening at all.

If you want to fight against censorship, keep up to date with Kelly Jensen’s weekly Censorship News Round-Up and check out the Anti-Censorship Tool Kit. As you’ll see, one strategy is to attending school board and library board meetings, as well as running for the board if possible. We need anti-censorship voices represented there, because Lafayette is only example of a problem that reaches across the country.