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Anti-censorship group in St. Tammany seeks to join frontlines in library battles

Stock photo courtesy of Pexels
Stock photo courtesy of Pexels

To uproarious applause from a crowded auditorium full of St. Tammany Parish Republicans, local activist and attorney David Cougle decried pedophilic material in libraries, likening children’s books to the experience of walking down Bourbon Street at night.

Cougle spoke to the local Republican Executive Committee meeting as a representative of the St. Tammany Library Accountability Project, a group launched from a Facebook page with 141 followers as of Thursday. He was in the speaker lineup alongside powerful Republicans such as Attorney General Jeff Landry, state Sen. Sharon Hewitt and Slidell Mayor Greg Cromer, all of whom had their sights set on library material they deem inappropriate.

Organizers with the St. Tammany Library Alliance are fighting back against the Accountability Project’s stated goals, which include asking the parish council to set up a citizen’s board to approve all library acquisitions.

“So whenever they want to acquire new books, it would get supervised by a citizens’ group,” Cougle said in a Dec. 5 interview on WGSO-AM’s “Ringside Politics.”

“The group would be appointed by the parish council, lay men and lay women of the community, that really understand the values of the community,” he said. The proposed citizen’s board would also have power to approve or reject library events and displays.

Some Accountability Project supporters have called for St. Tammany Parish Library Director Kelly LaRocca to be fired. LaRocca, who was named 2022 Library Director of the Year year by the Louisiana Library Association, has fielded “statements of concern” from residents regarding specific books. In response, she has formed committees composed of a cross-section of library employees to review and rule on whether or not they should be pulled from the shelves, following standard procedure. In some instances, books have been removed from circulation following a review.

Local activists who oppose removing materials from libraries say community boards aren’t qualified to review books and decide whether or not they should be removed, and they might not consist of a diverse group of residents who represent the parish as a whole.

St. Tammany Library Alliance formed after the backlash over an LGBTQ Pride Display that caused an uproar in Mandeville in July. The group said most residents supported the displays, with only one person speaking in opposition at the St. Tammany Parish Library Board of Control meeting.

“Book acquisition, that’s the librarian’s job,” Mel Manuel, a spokesperson for the Alliance said. “A librarian has to have a master’s degree in library science. So I think, yeah, why wouldn’t I trust that? That’s exactly what they were trained to do. That’s like asking, do you trust your doctor to prescribe medicine?”

Both groups are organizing ahead of a Dec. 13 Library Board of Control meeting, when the public will have an opportunity to comment on the board’s business.

The first part of the group’s plan is circulating a petition for residents who oppose the creation of the accountability board and the banning of books.

Within a week of publishing the petition, the group has received more than 1,200 signatures.

Many signees expressed disdain for censorship and support for LGBTQ materials, a frequent target for conservative groups.

“I grew up young and bisexual in an environment very hostile towards me and all people like me. I often felt depressed, anxious, defeated, and alone and often found reprieve in this same St. Tammany Public Library system,” Elise Viola wrote. “Just because you believe something doesn’t belong in your home doesn’t mean it doesn’t bring value to others in your community.”

“I trust librarians, who are highly trained professionals, to use their best judgment to serve their community,” Rachel Harmeyer commented. “Librarians should be able to do their work without being harassed. Banning books is not the answer.”

While conservative groups often say that they are only seeking to remove sexually explicit materials from the reach of children, LGBTQ books often wind up in their crosshairs.

“I don’t want a group of people with a certain agenda, which it’s clear that the agenda here is anti LGBTQ, to be in charge of who gets to read what books,” Manuel said

In Livingston Parish, a Library Board of Control member circulated pages from several books she wanted reviewed. One page, from a young adult book meant to teach teenagers about sex, included instructions on how to perform various sex acts, but other pages were pulled from children’s picture books about LGBTQ kids.

A list of challenged books in the St. Tammany Parish Library System includes many titles with LGBTQ themes, including “This Book is Gay,” by Juno Dawson and “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” by George Johnson, as well as books without LGBTQ themes such as Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” and Margaret Atwood’s “Oryx and Crake.”

Critics have also called out conservatives for misappropriating the term “groomer,” which typically refers to the behaviors sexual predators use to coerce potential victims, to characterize benign actions by LGBTQ people as harmful to children.

Landry, who received the Louisiana Republican Party’s endorsement for his run for governor, recently set up a tipline seeking complaints about libraries to protect children from “early sexualization, as well as grooming, sex trafficking, and abuse.”

Manuel acknowledged there is a long road ahead.

Beyond the petition, Manuel said library supporters need to mobilize to support the parish’s upcoming library millage in 2024 and turn out to vote in parish council elections.

“One interesting outcome of our efforts is that the LGBTQ community and progressives here in St. Tammany are coming together and uniting in a way that we’ve never seen before,” Manuel said. “And that’s people of all ages and backgrounds standing together to combat censorship and hate.”

This story was originally published by Louisiana Illuminator.

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