‘Censorship’ or ‘protecting kids’? Fresno County OKs screening children’s books at libraries

A divided Fresno County Board of Supervisors approved a proposal by Supervisor Steve Brandau to establish a process to remove books and materials from children’s sections of county libraries if a board-appointed committee deems that they contain “age-inappropriate content” – a step that some said amounted to a form of censorship.

It also sets up the prospect of litigation challenging the constitutionality of the act, according to a letter from civil liberties and free-press advocates.

Brandau was joined Tuesday in voting for his “Parents Matter Act” by Supervisors Nathan Magsig and Buddy Mendes. Supervisors Brian Pacheco and Sal Quintero voted against the measure.

The approved resolution states that “No Fresno County Library or other County facility shall allow ready access to minors of books and other materials that contain Age-Inappropriate Content contained within designated children’s sections or areas.” It also requires that material deemed inappropriate require a parent’s or guardian’s consent before it can be checked out.

Brandau unveiled his proposal at a press conference last week.

On Tuesday, Brandau offered a stack of seven children’s books that he said contained examples of problematic material including sexually graphic images and questions of gender identify.

“This is not a ban,” he said, seeking to counter criticism of the proposal. “We’re not removing anything. Every one of these books is still going to be in the library. All we’re doing is taking some of these books with the sketchy material” and moving them out of the children’s section. “If a parent wants to use them as a resource, it’s still there to use as a resource.”

Brandau added that the committee “is not empowered to remove books from the library,” but is limited to “figure out where in the library any particular book should be displayed.”

About 20 minutes of sometimes-heated public comment included remarks by speakers supporting Brandau, saying they want to “protect children from hyper-sexualization.” They equated some of the books to “grooming” children regarding sexuality, and stated that “government should not be in the business of making such material available to children.”

Others who spoke in opposition said the measure smacked of censorship, and that they believe parents are better qualified than an appointed committee to determine what children can have access to. “I don’t trust that any committee that you all would put together … would be reflective of all of this community, because we are very diverse in our opinions and our thoughts,” said Marcia Conant, a parent of two adult children.

Supervisors received almost 300 emails from people opposing the act, many in a campaign organized by the LGBT Community Network. The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California also weighed in, along with the First Amendment Coalition, PEN America and the Freedom to Read Foundation, with a seven-page letter outlining their objections to the act.

“The Resolution is an invasive and unconstitutional form of censorship that targets books based on seemingly disfavored speech, namely references to bodily anatomy, ‘sexual content,’ and ‘gender identity,” the ACLU latter states.

“Should you vote to adopt this resolution, you risk violating the constitutional rights of Fresno residents and exposing the County to costly litigation,” the organizations added, citing a slew of various legal cases. “The Board should not be in the business of stoking division or adopting an arbitrary and unconstitutional censorship regime.”

But Brandau and Magsig said they had received many calls from constituents urging yes votes.

Pacheco prefaced his “no” vote by pointing out the passion on both sides of the debate, telling Brandau that he understands that the intention is not to ban books.

“I know there are people with the best intentions who will be on this committee and want to serve on this committee,” he told Brandau. “But I believe this committee is a slippery slope. As a parent of three, I believe the parent is the most suited to make those decisions. … My morals and values are different from yours and everyone else’s, and it’s the parents who should have the final say.”

“It shouldn’t be a group of people that government people appoint to tell you what’s appropriate and not appropriate for your kid,” he added. “That’s a parent’s job, not ours.”

Mendes initially said he didn’t think Brandau’s proposal was ready for action. He said the plan for a 15-member committee, with each supervisor appointing three members, was too large, instead arguing for 11 members. He also said that if a book is removed from the children’s section, there needs to be a published list of books moved so that parents could see that they remain available for check-out with permission. And, he added, some form of appeals process is needed to serve as a check on the committee.

But Mendes eventually voted yes after Brandau accepted all three suggestions. To make up the 11 members, he said each of the five supervisors would have two appointees to the committee, with an 11th member to be appointed by the county administrative officer.

He also agreed to include a provision for a published list of moved books, and said he would work with County Administrative Officer Paul Nerland and interim County Librarian Sally Gomez to develop an appeals process to offer “surety that the committee doesn’t run amok.”