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In vote tonight, St. Marys, Kansas government must not cut ties with public library for refusing to censor

A mix of hands go up from those expressing their opionion to keep the current Pottawatomie-Wabaunsee Regional Library was prompted by resident Dave Perry at Tuesday's St. Mary's City Commission meeting

Evert Nelson / Topeka Capital-Journal / USA TODAY NETWORK

A mix of hands go up from those wishing to keep the current Pottawatomie Wabaunsee Regional Library at Tuesday's St. Marys City Commission meeting.

UPDATE (Dec. 7, 2022): Last night, the St. Marys City Commission voted 4-0 to renew the Pottawatomie Wabaunsee Regional Library’s lease for another year. The renewed lease does not place any restrictions on the content of the books the library can carry. The city commissioners cited an outpouring of community support for the library as a primary motivator for renewing the lease. However, the fight over book content may not be over: City Commissioner Matthew Childs, who was also elected mayor by the other commissioners at last night’s meeting, indicated discussion would continue over how to “keep the library in line with community standards.” 

A Kansas city government may decide tonight whether to jump on the library censorship bandwagon by declining to renew the lease of a regional public library that refuses to clear its shelves of “racially or socially divisive material.” 

The Pottawatomie Wabaunsee Regional Library is headquartered in St. Marys, Kansas, and has seven other locations serving residents of two counties in the state. The library has operated on an annual lease with the city since the 1980s. But that lease is in jeopardy after a local parent objected to the library carrying a book about a transgender child titled “Melissa.” 

At a St. Marys City Commission meeting in August, city commissioner Matthew Childs requested that a “morals clause” be added to the library’s lease. The library objected to the clause, which would have required that the library not “supply, distribute, loan, encourage, or coerce acceptance of or approval of explicit sexual or racially or socially divisive material, or events (such as ‘drag queen story hours’) that support the LGBTQ+ or critical theory ideology or practice.” None of the city’s other contracts contain any “morals”' clause, according to the city’s response to FIRE’s public records request.

At a subsequent commission meeting on Nov. 15, residents packed the meeting room to listen to the debate over the library and voice their concerns. A majority of residents who spoke up said they want the library to remain open. The commission ultimately decided to table a vote on whether to renew the library’s lease until its next meeting, which is scheduled for today at 7:00 p.m. CST.

The government of St. Marys is flirting with violating the First Amendment, which protects our right to receive information and knowledge. Public libraries are, in the words of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, “the quintessential locus of the receipt of information.” 

The St. Marys City Commission must not sever ties with the library because of its refusal to aid and abet suffocating censorship.

In the 1982 case of Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District No. 26 v. Pico, a plurality of Supreme Court justices stated that the government cannot remove books from a public school library “for the purpose of restricting access to the political ideas or social perspectives discussed in them, when that action is motivated simply by the officials’ disapproval of the ideas involved.” As another federal court later explained, the “principles set forth in Pico—a school library case—have even greater force when applied to public libraries,” which lack the “inculcative” function of public schools, and “instead are, as even Justice Rehnquist’s Pico dissent recognized, ‘designed for freewheeling inquiry.’”

The language in the proposed “morals clause” is astoundingly broad and vague. What constitutes racially or socially divisive material? The government could plausibly apply this label to nearly any book about race or any other political or social topic. After all, is there any political or social topic on which Americans don’t disagree? 

If St. Marys refuses to renew its lease with the library, the city’s residents may be left without one, as there reportedly is no other space in the city that can accommodate the library’s operations. 

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It’s hard to imagine a more blatant repudiation of democratic ideals than government officials removing their citizens’ access to a rich trove of books and information because they might be exposed to views or ideas on the officials’ blacklist. Our democracy depends on the freedom of citizens to explore, share, and discuss different ideas and perspectives and reach their own conclusions without government meddling. If you don’t like a book, don’t check it out.

Parents in St. Marys may want to ensure their children can access only content the parent deems appropriate for their child’s age or maturity level, but they can easily do so without the government deep-sixing the entire library. As the library’s director Judith Cremer explained, parents can request that staff limit their children’s access to certain books. 

“We just are doing what public libraries do,” Cremer said. “We don’t really judge information, we are a reflection of the world and things that are in the world. We have information that has been published and mediated and checked for facts. So it’s a safe place that people can go to get access to that information. It’s not like we are handing out or advocating it in any way. It’s just there.”

And it’s essential to St. Marys residents like Hannah Stockman, who told the Kansas Reflector that some of her children “are learning how to read and some of them don’t really want to read, but they come here and they get excited. I can’t provide that for them any other way.” She added, “It just feels good to be here.”

The St. Marys City Commission must not sever ties with the library because of its refusal to aid and abet suffocating censorship. The commission should vote to renew the library’s lease and allow its residents to continue accessing books that expand their knowledge, stir their imaginations, and reflect the world around them.

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