Saline County Judge Matt Brumley explains his perspective on the continuing debate over what content children should be allowed to access in libraries at a press conference on Monday, June 26, 2023. (Tess Vrbin/Arkansas Advocate)
The Saline County Quorum Court will appoint a new member, for the second time in a month, to the board that oversees the county library system.
Laine Holleran resigned from the five-member board last week, and the board has received seven applications to replace her, chairwoman Marian Douglas said at a special board meeting Monday. The board will meet again July 6 to discuss with County Judge Matt Brumley which applicant they will recommend to the quorum court, which next meets July 17.
Former board chairwoman Caroline Miller Robinson resigned earlier this month, and the quorum court last week appointed Jamie Clemmer to replace her.
The two resignations come as Saline County continues to be the primary battleground for the statewide debate over what content should be available to children in libraries. Some Saline County residents have claimed that content pertaining to systemic racism, sexual activity and LGBTQ+ topics is “indoctrination” and should be out of children’s reach in libraries. Others say this content reflects the community and that restricting access amounts to censorship.
Brumley mentioned the new library board vacancy at a press conference earlier on Monday, which he said he called in order to clear up what he considers inaccurate information about the intentions of county officials in the ongoing content debate.
Those who have opposed the efforts to relocate books have expressed concern about a “slippery slope” to defunding the library, which happened in Craighead County in 2022 after similar backlash against LGBTQ+ content being accessible to minors.
Saline County Library Director Patty Hector has said relocating books “is the same as banning” them; Brumley told reporters Monday that he disagrees.
He also said he has “full confidence” that no one in Saline County government wants to defund the library system or has “motivations to marginalize” any group of people.
“The motivation is to ensure that the most vulnerable [members] of our county and community are well-protected by people who care so much that regardless of whether a law has come to fruition yet, we do the next right thing for the future of our county, which is the youth within our county,” Brumley said.
The law Brumley mentioned is Act 372 of 2023, which will change the way libraries handle challenges to content that members of the public consider “obscene” and create criminal liability for librarians who distribute such materials. Local elected officials will have the final say over whether a challenged book can stay on publicly available library shelves or must be moved to an area that minors cannot access, the law states.
The Saline County Quorum Court has been considering amending county policy to shift some control over the county library system’s staff, budget and operations to the county judge.
Brumley reiterated his past statement that minors should not have access to explicit sexual content in libraries.
When asked how he would define obscene content, he said he believes “there can be a whole lot of answers to that” but considers it obvious upon being exposed to it.
“I have been shown some that I would not consider explicitly sexual content,” he said. “There was subject matter that might lead one to believe what somebody’s sexual preference may be, but there wasn’t explicit graphic detail.”
He gave the example of the memoir “All Boys Aren’t Blue” by George M. Johnson, which is one of two books being contested in the Saline County Library’s formal challenge process, according to documents Hector provided the Arkansas Advocate.
In a form dated May 21, the challenger said they considered Johnson’s statement of intent to provide teenagers with a “handbook” on gay sexuality “very dangerous.” The form included a list of concerns about the book, citing specific page numbers and quotes.
When Brumley spoke to the library board May 22, he implied that he submitted a challenge against a book earlier that day. On Monday, he said he had “participated in the inspection of the library” led by others who support relocating books.
Brumley said he met with Hector in March “to get her insight” after some county residents told the quorum court certain books in the library were inappropriate for children. He and the library director “had a good discussion” even though they disagreed on some things, he said.
Act 372 was being considered in the state Legislature at the time, and Brumley said he told Hector the library should “be proactive” and relocate the books in question, “regardless of legislation, regardless of law and ordinances.”
Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed Act 372 on March 31. It is expected to go into effect Aug. 1, though 18 plaintiffs are challenging the law in federal court and have asked a judge to block it from taking effect.
In April, the Saline County Quorum Court recommended, with an 11-2 vote, that the library “relocate materials that are not subject-matter or age appropriate for children, due to their sexual content or imagery, to an area that is not accessible to children.”
Brumley emphasized Monday that the resolution “has no lawful weight,” since resolutions do not create policy but are meant to guide future policy decisions.
Hector has refused to relocate books at the quorum court’s request, and told the court in May that “there is nothing wrong with these books” and “it’s not illegal to be gay or trans.”
At the library board meeting the following week, Brumley said Hector’s words gave him a “high degree of concern,” and he reminded the board that he plays a role in appointing them.
The board proceeded to table a resolution, put forth by Miller Robinson, that would give the county judge “concurrent power to relocate or remove books” from youth sections of the library if they are “inappropriate for youth.”
The quorum court is considering an amendment to the 1978 ordinance that created the library’s board of trustees. Under the existing ordinance, the trustees have “full and complete authority” to maintain the library and “the exclusive right and power” to purchase library materials.
The amendment would remove those phrases and add “subject to oversight by the Saline County Judge.” The library board would also have to submit all changes to library policy to the county judge for approval, submit its annual budget to the quorum court for approval, and obtain insurance in case of “claims that may be made due to actions or inactions” of the board and library administration.
Brumley said Monday he doesn’t believe library administrators’ claim that amending the 1978 ordinance runs the risk of a $200,000 loss in state funding because the amendment would downgrade the library board from an administrative to an advisory body. Library staff have so far not provided him proof of their claim.
Brumley also said he did not believe the quorum court would involve itself in the library system’s day-to-day operations if the amendment passes.
He noted that the ordinance giving the library board its authority seems to run counter to Amendment 55 of the Arkansas Constitution, which says the county judge’s powers include the ability to “hire county employees, except those persons employed by other elected officials of the county.”
“I believe as an elected official, if something is brought to our attention in a concern, and it is looked into and investigated, it deserves our attention,” he said. “If it’s something that’s found to be valid, it must be addressed.”
In Monday’s press conference, Brumley also took note of reports that librarians have been harassed in the past few months. People should report these experiences to law enforcement, he said.
“It is not okay or appropriate to threaten or dehumanize other people,” he said.
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