Flathead County

ImagineIF Trustees Spar Over Policies Aimed at Preventing Censorship

Library board resists removal of anti-censorship language; policy discussions over sexually explicit content in collection materials may set stage for action on challenged books

By Micah Drew
ImagineIF Library in Kalispell on April 24, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The ImagineIF Library Board of Trustees met May 26 to discuss updating its library policies, including those meant to prevent censorship, and laid plans to vet a record number of applicants for an opening on a volunteer board whose profile has risen in the wake of book challenges that mirror a debate roiling communities across the country.

According to the essential standards set forth by the Montana State Library, the board must review its policies every three years to ensure they accurately reflect the mission and goals of the library.

The trustees reviewed several policies including the Computer Use, Library Programs, Fair Treatment and Collection Development policies, the latter two which have long been the subject of divided opinion among trustees. The policies were previously discussed on May 3 at a meeting of the policy committee made up of trustees Doug Adams and Marsha Sultz.

The Fair Treatment policy, first approved in 1989, adopted the American Library Association’s (ALA) Library Bill of Rights, which affirms that libraries are forums for information and ideas and states that materials should not be excluded “because of the origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation.” The ALA has also developed guidelines for schools that prohibit the removal of books for arbitrary reasons.

Trustee Adams has stated on numerous occasions that he believes ImagineIF should remove ALA wording from its policies and has denounced the association as having a “radical leftist agenda.” At a policy committee meeting on May 3, he proposed removing reference to the ALA Bill of Rights, which was approved.

During the policy meeting, Adams also proposed removing two paragraphs stating the library should challenge censorship and resist “abridgement of free expression and free access to ideas.”

“I think as a local library we should have the freedom to govern ourselves,” Adams said, reiterating his stance that he felt the board’s hands were tied in some decision making. “All I’m looking for is the flexibility to do that… unfettered, you know, on this side of the Constitution obviously.”

ImagineIF Assistant Director Sean Anderson vehemently defended the ALA guidelines and opposed the removal of any phrasing challenging censorship.

“I think when it comes to the philosophy of library service that we should continue to challenge censorship,” Anderson said. “I think it is primary to the role of public libraries full stop.”

The anti-censorship language was retained and the full trustee board approved the amended Fair Treatment policy with just the removal of ALA references.

The Collections Development policy prompted the most discussion and new amendments from trustees.

Trustee Dave Ingram requested two additions to the list of selection criteria: “to provide alternative or opposing perspectives on a topic or an issue,” and “avoidance of any visual sexually explicit conduct that is or appears to be a minor.”

Ingram cited sections of the U.S. Code that state child pornography is not protected free speech in any situation.

Anderson pushed back by stating that works that may contain a graphic description or explicit visual depiction of a minor would have to be considered as a whole and in consideration of the author’s intent.

“We will never add child pornography to the collection, that’s illegal. But to make a blanket statement that our collections will not contain graphic depictions of sex that involves minors in any circumstances could close off some opportunities,” Anderson said.

Anderson went on say that the change was only being proposed because of the controversy surrounding “Gender Queer,” an adult graphic novel that has been challenged in school and public libraries across the nation. In January, trustees voted 3-2 against keeping the book, but indefinitely tabled a vote to remove it from the collection, expressing concerns about legal action in the event its removal violated the library policies now under review.

“I think that taken as a whole, that title does not contain child pornography, it involves somebody who is a queer individual exploring their sexuality,” Anderson said. “To make a point of change based on one page of one specific title is a dangerous precedent. That is the definition of censorship.”

Both of Ingram’s proposals passed 3-2, with Ingram, Adams and trustee chair Heidi Roedel voting in favor. Trustees Marsha Sultz and Connie Leistiko, who have been in the minority of most split-board votes over the past year, voted against.

One motion by Adams that did not pass was specifically related to book challenges, intending to bar the library from purchasing any challenged materials while the titles are under reconsideration by the board. As an example, Adams said he did not approve of the six copies of “Gender Queer” ImagineIF purchased after the title was challenged. The books were bought after demand for the novel “skyrocketed” and the number of holds exceeded a 5:1 ratio the library employs to evaluate popularity, according to Anderson.

Adams also moved to strike policy sections from the Library Programs policy that similarly affirm the library’s opposition to censorship, calling it a “buzzword.”

“You’re gutting the very heart of why a person comes to a library,” trustee Marsha Sultz told Adams before the motion failed.

At the end of the meeting the trustees discussed the approaching opening on the board after trustee Connie Leistiko, a former teacher, attorney and law school dean who has served on the board since 2008, terms out in June. Eleven community members, a record number, submitted applications for the trustee seat, including Carmen Cuthbertson, the Kalispell resident who initially filed the challenge to “Gender Queer,” and who continues to voicer her opposition to the book and ImgagineIF’s collection development policies at board meetings.

Trustees will interview candidates on June 10 at 4 p.m., before making a recommendation to the Flathead County Commissioners who will appoint the new board member at their June 30 meeting.