Chairman Michael O’Mara
St. Louis County Council
41 South Central
Clayton, MO 63105
September 24, 2007
Dear Chairman O’Mara and Members of the St. Louis County Council,
We have been contacted by local residents concerned about efforts to restrict access to books in the Daniel Boone branch of the St. Louis County Public Library. These books include Growing Up Gay in America by Jason R. Rich, Homosexuality: What Does It Mean?(Perspectives on Healthy Sexuality) by Julie K. Endersbe, Making Sexual Decisions: The Ultimate Teen Guide (It Happened to Me, No. 4) by L. Kris Gowen, and A-List #6, Some Like It Hot by Zoey Dean. I understand that an effort was made at the Council’s September 4, 2007 meeting to persuade the Council to give consideration to the review of obscenity laws and the materials available for teenage children in the St. Louis County libraries. I understand that an oral complaint was filed with the Council with no resulting action to date.
As the county attorney concluded, none of the challenged books is legally obscene. To be obscene, material must completely lack serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value. The critical acclaim the books have received testifies to their educational value, and anybody who has read them is aware that they explore a range of important issues. The books include both educational guides to sex and sexuality written for a young adult audience, as well as the bestselling novel, Some Like It Hot, which describes a teen’s first sexual encounter. School Library Journal has praised Homosexuality: What Does It Mean?, which describes safe sex, abstinence, setting sexual limits, and unhealthy behaviors in addition to sexual identity, for its “clear, nonjudgmental narrative.” These books are plainly not obscene, and they are therefore fully protected under the First Amendment.
The Constitution prohibits the public library from censoring material because some people find it offensive or distasteful. As many courts have noted, the public library’s role is to serve the entire community, not to reflect or cater to any specific viewpoint. For example, in Sund v. City of Wichita Falls (N.D. Tex., 2000) the court struck down a library’s petition system that allowed “any special interest group to suppress library materials on the basis of their content,” observing that the system “actually facilitates an infinite number of content- and viewpoint-based speech restrictions.” As in St. Louis County, Sund v. City of Wichita Falls concerned complaints about literature with homosexual themes, including Daddy’s Roommate by Michael Willhoite and Heather Has Two Mommies by Leslea Newman.
The practical effect of acceding to a request to remove materials is to invite others to demand changes in the library’s holdings to reflect their beliefs, leaving library staff vulnerable to multiple, possibly conflicting, demands. If individuals object to a particular work, they are free to read something else. Meanwhile, other readers should have the freedom to choose from an inclusive and expansive reading selection. If parents have concerns about their own children’s reading choices, is it their responsibility to direct and supervise them, not to expect library policies to reflect their views about parenting.
The St. Louis Public Library has adequate policies for dealing with book challenges of this nature. These include a written request for review identifying specific objections in the context of the book as a whole. Normally, a review committee consisting of library professionals then addresses the complaint and makes a recommendation based on, among other criteria, the book’s interest to patrons and the author’s competence and authority in the subject matter. Such a process is essential to guard against reliance on subjective judgments and to ensure that books are removed only for pedagogically sound and legally sufficient reasons. Indeed, the St. Louis County Public Library’s Collection Development Policy states that “Materials are evaluated as complete works and not on the basis of a particular passage. A work will not be excluded from the Library’s collection solely because it represents a particular aspect of life, frankness of expression, or because it is controversial.”
Absent any indication that the library’s procedures are inadequate, complaints about library materials or shelving policies should be processed through the library. We trust that the library will deal with them in a uniform, constitutionally-sound manner.
In our experience, controversies of this sort are best handled by enriching the array of reading materials available, not restricting them, and by including additional voices and titles rather than suppressing or excluding any. If we can be of assistance in this matter, please do not hesitate to contact us.
Cc: Susan E. Sagarra, Managing Editor, West Newsmagazine