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July 05, 2005

what's a poor library to do?

Don Herzog: July 5, 2005

Who knew a little paragraph buried in a bureaucratic document could kick up such a fuss?  Page down to F-9 and you'll find this, uncertain syntax and all:

Commissioner Storms led a discussion on the adoption of a policy that Hillsborough County Government abstains from promoting and participating in Gay Pride recognition and events.  The Board approved to adopt a policy that Hillsborough County Government abstain from acknowledging, promoting, and participating in Gay Pride recognition and events.  The Board approved that the policy would only be able to be overturned by a public hearing and supermajority vote.  Renee Lee is responsible for drafting a Board policy for Board review by July 20th.

Why?  Because the West Gate regional library put up a display for Gay and Lesbian Pride month:  a poster with famous gays and lesbians, and books and pamphlets from the library's collection.  A few patrons complained, and the display came down.  One pamphlet offered teenagers with "questions about their sexuality" "counseling resources."  That concerned Commissioner Storms, and hey presto! a new sweeping policy for Florida's Hillsborough County, which includes Tampa.

Is the policy unconstitutional?  Does it violate the first amendment?  Centrally of course the constitutional guarantee of free speech protects private citizens from government control.  The law on whether it protects one unit of government from another is dicey (but see this).  Still, I don't think the commission's action violates the first amendment.  Neither does she:

Renee Lee, the Hillsborough County attorney, said it was legal.  "If the county doesn't want to spend money promoting gay rights, they can do that," Lee said.  "It's not a constitutional breach.  This is not a free speech issue."

And the city of Tampa's human rights ordinance (click on chapter 12 here) bars discrimination on the ground of sexual orientation.  (The county removed sexual orientation from its ordinance in 1995.)  The library gets some of its funding from the city, and a citizen has filed a complaint with the city's Office of Human Rights.  But I didn't notice any language in the statute that really applies.

So as far as I can tell, then, there are no constitutional or other legal barriers to the county commission's action.  This is a policy dispute, no more and no less.  It belongs in the political arena, not in court.  So the commission got quite an earful from the public.  Still, they adopted the policy.  It's one crummy policy.  And I even think we ought to be able to agree on that whether we approve of gay rights or not.

Suppose a library put up a display on the civil rights protests.  It might feature Bull ("I want them to see the dogs work") Connor unleashing violence against peaceful black protesters, or hooded Klan members.  Indeed, it might even more or less exclusively feature such repugnant displays, just as the Florida Holocaust Museum once ran an exhibit on The Art of Hatred, just as Alabama once displayed a hooded Klan member in its Civic Centre.  No matter:  ordinarily we'd take such a display as taking sides with the civil rights protesters and against racists, fascists, Klan members, and the like.

If it's okay for a public library to take sides on civil rights, it can't be because nobody disagrees.  It's rather that we've decided that their disagreement is beyond the pale.  So a respectable thing to say about the Hillsborough county commission's move is that they don't think opposition to gay rights is beyond the pale.  That is, the commission needn't themselves be opposed to gay rights.  They might think, though, that it's inappropriate for citizens so opposed to be affronted on walking into the public library, where everyone should be welcome.

But mandated silence on the topic seems antithetical to what libraries are about.  Libraries are for learning stuff, and displays don't have to take sides.  That's why I say proponents and opponents of gay rights alike ought to agree that the county blew it, in a big, bad, awful way.  The real divide here is between those fond of vibrant democratic debate and those opposed to it.  So I'd let the library mount a display airing all sides of the dispute.  Indeed, I'd encourage them to.  Precisely because there is ongoing controversy about gay rights, and because we think (don't we?) that both sides have legitimate views, no reasonable observer would take a library exhibit's inclusion of critics of gay rights as silently scornful.  The county's measure makes it seem like they think the very topic of gay pride is unspeakable, indecent — something that must remain deeply closetedThat position, and not any measured view on gay marriage or civil unions or antidiscrimination laws, is reprehensible.

The funny thing is that Commissioner Storms claims to have been most concerned by that pamphlet telling teens concerned about their sexuality where they might turn.  What that has to do with taking sides on gay pride is beyond me.  ("They're recruiting!")  Next up, I suppose, a policy that shackles the library here, too:

17-year-old [anxiously]:  Um, have you got any information on sexual orientation and identity?

Reference librarian [primly, or maybe glumly]:  I am not at liberty to divulge that information.

Or if the commission is really worried about the county government's "acknowledging, promoting, and participating in" controversial causes, maybe they should tell the library to stop buying books on evolutionary biology — and creationism, too.  Maybe they should get the existing books off the shelves, too.  That's just the beginning, of course, because library shelves stripped of controversial materials are going to be pretty damned empty.

So maybe the respectable position I ascribed to the Hillsborough County commission — that libraries should stay peacefully above the fray isn't their actual position.  Maybe they just plain don't like gays.

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his post is provided as a forum for comments for the Left2Right post: "what's a poor library to do?" by Don Herzog: July 5, 2005 [Read More]

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I'm tired of pretending that these religious right and/or conservatives just have a "point-of-view" that has a right to be heard. Case in point? Hillsborough County in Florida just passed a law forbidding any government agency from "acknowledging, prom... [Read More]

Tracked on Jul 5, 2005 1:51:49 PM

» Tired of Moderates from zeebahtronic.
I'm tired of pretending that these religious right and/or conservatives just have a "point-of-view" that has a right to be heard. Case in point? Hillsborough County in Florida just passed a law forbidding any government agency from "acknowledging, prom... [Read More]

Tracked on Jul 5, 2005 1:54:33 PM

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