The Macon County Public Library, as well as the Nantahala Library and the Hudson Library in Highlands, operates under a regional agreement with the Board of County Commissioners from Jackson, Macon, and Swain Counties for the nonprofit organization referred to the Fontana Regional Library System to provide public library services.
Over the last two years, citizens in Macon County have voiced their frustration with the library system, specifically with policies and practices relating to LGTBQ+ books and book displays as well as the overall selection of books available in the public library system’s catalog, which many oppose due to the possibility of children being able to access the books which they say feature sexually explicit content.
While a growing group of Macon County residents have spoken to county leaders in the last two years, it wasn’t until Tuesday night that commissioners seemed to support the notion of withdrawing from the Fontana Regional Library System, with newly elected commissioner Danny Antoine and library liaison going on record to give his “100% support” in favor of ending the agreement that has been in place since 1980.
The first membership to the advisory board of the Macon County Public Library was approved by the Macon County Board of Commissioners in March 1980, nearly 43 years ago. The agreement states that the county will provide funding for facilities and operations of the library and that the library will be governed by policies and procedures established by the library system’s board of trustees.
The last agreement, signed in 2013, states: “the Boards of County Commissioners of Jackson, Macon, and Swain Counties recognize that collaboration provides the most effective and efficient means to provide public library service to the residents of said counties by unifying the administration of the participating libraries, providing professional library specialists, cooperating in the selection of books and other materials, and crossing county lines for the benefit of all; this collaboration provides opportunities for service and resource allocations otherwise beyond the financial and service capacities of the individual county governments and libraries.”
The contract defines the relationship between the participating counties and the library system stating that all real property such as buildings, grounds, and other facilities of each library shall be acquired and owned by the respective counties while all other property such as library materials, technology, furnishings, and books, are owned by Fontana Regional Library, with an exception for the Hudson Library in Highlands, which calls for joint ownership of materials within the library.
Because of the agreement in place, if Macon County were to withdraw from the regional library system, they would retain the building the Macon County Public Library, as well as the Nantahala Library, are operated in, however the entirety of the building’s contents would be removed at the discretion of the library system.
According to Antoine, who has voiced his concerns on several occasions over the last few months during public library meetings, his basis for wanting to move forward with pulling out of the regional system is due to concerns over the types of books in the library’s catalog that he personally deems inappropriate. Specifically referencing a book mentioned during public comment period that is available in the Macon County Public Library’s teen’s section, which is identified as being for teens 14 to 18 years old, Antoine said teens shouldn’t have access to those materials. Antoine accused the library system of having an “agenda” that involves the sexualization of children.
“I am working really hard on this, especially for the kids because it is disgraceful that you would have pornographic books with kids and you have people defending a position saying that that is ok for a child to read,” said Antoine. “Just understand my heart, and I know these gentlemen [other commissioners] are definitely on board with the fact that these books are completely unacceptable to kids and the fact that the Fontana Regional System won’t work with us, even in terms of separating them to make it an adult section, so kids can’t access it… that tells me you have an agenda. It is not even about these books, it is more about an agenda and that they are trying to hyper-sexualize kids, that is a perverted situation.”
Commissioner Antoine apologized to attendees of Tuesday night’s commissioner’s meeting who also attended a meeting of the Fontana Regional Library Board – saying that not listening to the complaints of citizens during their meeting was “no way to treat constituents.”
While Commissioner Antoine and other members of the public were upset by not being allowed to speak the regional library system and address the board of volunteers, there is no legal requirement for the board to have to allow public comment. The Fontana Regional Library System operates as a non-profit organization, completely separate from the county. The governing bodies of the volunteer boards are not bound by the state’s open meetings or public meeting laws, as those only apply to government bodies. The library system is legally required to provide an account of how public funds are used, but beyond that, they have no legal obligation.
Brief History of Fontana Regional Library System
In the mid-nineteenth century, the census declared that North Carolina had the highest illiteracy rate in the nation. In response, Charles C. Jewett, librarian of the Smithsonian Institution, decided to donate several thousand volumes to various North Carolina libraries. At the same time, the North Carolina secretary of state began building a collection of books in his office that evolved into the State Library; formally established in 1812, this State Library was the only tax-supported library existing in North Carolina before the twentieth century.
In 1867 North Carolina’s first free library, named the Good-Will Free Library, was opened by Charles Hallet Wing in Ledger (Mitchell County). This library, which remained in existence until 1926, opened with 12,000 volumes. By 1886 there were 22 libraries of more than 300 volumes each in the state. On 9 Mar. 1897 the General Assembly ratified an act requiring any town of more than 1,000 people to provide for the establishment of a public library. By 1900 North Carolina had 57 libraries. Grants from industrialist Andrew Carnegie and the Carnegie Corporation supported the building of ten more libraries, located in Greensboro, Charlotte, Winston-Salem, Andrews, Durham, Hendersonville, Hickory, Murphy, and Rutherford College.
The first free, tax-supported public library in North Carolina, the Durham Public Library, began as an idea discussed by Professor Edwin Mims of Trinity College (now Duke University) with the Canterbury Club, a local literary club, in June 1895. On 5 Mar. 1897, an act incorporating the Durham Public Library was passed by the North Carolina General Assembly. The library was finished in January 1898 and opened its doors to the public in early February of that year.
In 1904, group of citizens in Greensboro worked to form the Library Association. This association later spurred the passage of a 1909 legislative act that established an official North Carolina Library Commission to open and give assistance to libraries, including the establishment of traveling libraries. Despite the increased availability of libraries and books, by 1926 only 32 percent of the state had ready access to public libraries. Under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the New Deal Works Project Administration approved a statewide library project in North Carolina with Julius Amis as the head. By 1942 the percentage of North Carolinians with library access had increased to 85 percent. In 1944, Fontana Regional Library had its humble beginnings when the Tennessee Valley Authority sponsored a regional bookmobile to visit the most remote areas of Jackson, Macon and Swain Counties.
While the Fontana Regional Library’s origin began with the bookmobile, the counties it serves had existing libraries prior to the regional system being formed. The Hudson Library in Highlands was one of the first established in the state, founded around 1884. The library was privately owned and operated by volunteers. Franklin’s first library was established in the 1890s, however it was a travelling collection that moved from place to place based on availability.
After nearly a decade operating the bookmobile around the furthest corners of Macon, Jackson, and Swain Counties, Fontana Regional Library System incorporated as a nonprofit entity in the 1950s when there was a statewide effort to form more regional library systems.
The 1950s push for regional library systems across the state as a means to pool funding and resources has resulted in a nearly 50/50 split for library structures for North Carolina’s 100 counties today. Across North Carolina, 58 of the state’s 100 counties operate county specific libraries or library systems. Some counties have several libraries within their system, but the libraries are managed within the respective county. Inside of the 58 county systems, there are 12 municipal systems as well, which is when a town has a library in addition to the county system. The other 42 counties in North Carolina are part of regional library systems. In total, there are 12 regional library systems in North Carolina – with the 42 counties being part of one of the 12. For the Fontana system, there are 3 counties in the coverage area, Macon, Jackson and Swain, and within those three counties, the regional system manages 7 libraries. In all, North Carolina has more than 400 libraries spanning Murphy to Manteo.
Public Comment Concerns
Patrons who spoke during public comment period on Tuesday, reiterated previous points concerning specific books and book displays at the library and after more than two years if voicing their complaints and not enough change occurring, resident’s asked commissioners to withdraw from the regional system and not renew their operations agreement.
Jim Gaston, who has consistently spoken out against library policies and book selection, specifically requested for Macon County to not renew their contract with the Fontana Regional Library System. Gaston suggested due to what he perceives as a lack of control over location operations that Macon County residents have in the library, that if Macon County were to pull out of the library system, they would have access to resources through the North Carolina Cardinal System, the statewide resource sharing system.
If Macon County were to pull out of the Fontana Regional Library System, the county would retain the library building, however all books and resources within the library would remain the property of the library system, and would not stay in Macon County.
The NC Cardinal System was conceived in 2009 and formed in 2010 “to make the combined resources of North Carolina’s public libraries available to all people of the state through a shared catalog and a statewide library card.” The Macon County Public Library currently participates in the NC Cardinal System, which allows library patrons to view a catalog from across North Carolina and “check out” a book from anywhere. The book is then shipped to the local library for pick up. The program is a “resource sharing” platform that encompasses 50 library systems across 62 counties in North Carolina, 8 of which are regional systems, 35 of which are county, 6 that are municipal and 1 special system. The way it operates is if John wants to read the new XYZ book, but the book has not been purchased and added to the Macon County Public Library collection, he can search the NC Cardinal Catalog to see if it is available somewhere else in the county. If John finds he can rent the XYZ book from Duplin County near the cost, the NC Cardinal System allows sharing of that book and John will be able to check it out and have it shipped to Macon County. When he finishes, he returns the book to the Macon County Public Library System and it is then returned to Duplin County.
If the county were to withdraw from the Fontana Regional Library System, resulting in all the books within the libraries being removed as they are owned by the regional library system, Gaston is correct in saying that the new county-structured library system would be able to reapply to participate in the NC Cardinal System. However – while the Fontana Regional Library System is a three-county system, with leadership and input from residents and volunteer boards in all three counties, NC Cardinal is structured the same way – except with more counties, more input and broader reach. So while a county-structured public library might allow the local library more input and control on which books are in the Macon County catalog or how they are displayed within the physical library locations, NC Cardinal’s Governance Committee is made up of representatives from across North Carolina such as Johnston County or Lee County. For example, the book Gender Queer, which has been mentioned several times during public comment period due to the explicit nature of the book’s contents and its availability at the public library, has one copy available at the Macon County Public Library currently, however a search of the NC Cardinal System shows a total of 10 copies, any of which can be requested and checked out by Macon County residents, regardless if the library is managed by Fontana Regional Library System or Macon County.
Gaston also said that the county should consider pulling out of the library system to ensure that Macon County funds stay in Macon County. Because the current libraries are part of a three county regional system of Macon, Jackson, and Swain Counties, all three counties provide funding for the library system, which operates as a system – while also having individual budgets for each library. Gaston said he wouldn’t want Macon County residents to have to pay to build a new library in Swain County. While Gaston presented that example during public comment period, the regional agreement specifically states that individual counties are responsible for their own buildings – and the regional system shares resources such as books and personnel. Because the Swain County library is considered the regional system headquarters, both Jackson and Macon contribute a small portion to the construction of the regional system administration offices in Swain County, not the library itself. Macon County is in the middle of building a new library for the Nantahala Community and those funds are specifically from Macon County, not the regional system.
As a regional system, the library is funded by a culmination of funds from the county governments it serves. Macon County contributes more than Swain and Jackson, however they operate more library locations. In addition to the county and state funding the library receives, because Fontana Regional Library operates as a nonprofit, it receives a significant number of grants as well tax deductible donations from the community. If the county were to take over the library, much of that funding would no longer be available, adversely impacting the operational expenses of the facility.
Macon County leaders vowed to continue exploring how to withdraw from the Fontana Regional Library System – which will likely include research legal challenges and fees the county may face. There is a significant body of case law in the United States that establishes the principle that public libraries cannot ban books based on their content, except in very limited circumstances. One of the most well-known cases on this issue is Board of Education v. Pico, a 1982 Supreme Court case involving a school board’s decision to remove several books from school libraries. The Court ruled that the First Amendment prohibits the government from removing books from library shelves simply because they disagree with the ideas contained in those books. The Court noted that public libraries also have an obligation to uphold the principles of free speech and the free exchange of ideas. Another notable case is United States v. American Library Association, a 2003 case in which the government attempted to require public libraries to install internet filters to block access to certain types of content. The Court ruled that such a requirement would violate the First Amendment, because it would restrict access to constitutionally-protected speech.
In general, courts have recognized that public libraries have a responsibility to provide access to a wide range of information and ideas, and that attempts to ban books or restrict access to information must be narrowly tailored to serve a compelling government interest. Public libraries may have policies in place to guide the selection and acquisition of materials, but these policies cannot be used to ban books or limit access to ideas based on their content.
There is also specific legal precedent on record mirroring the situation in Macon County where library patrons complain the library board – the library board decides not to change policy – and then the patrons turned to county officials – the funding source – to demand change. However, courts again ruled the books could not be removed based on the United State’s Constitution.
In 2008, the West Bend Community Memorial Library in Wisconsin, United States, had purchased several LGBTQ-themed books, including titles such as “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” by Stephen Chbosky and “Baby Be-Bop” by Francesca Lia Block, and placed them in the library’s young adult section. Some community members objected to the books’ content and demanded their removal.
The library board initially voted to keep the books in circulation, but the county board later intervened and ordered the books to be removed. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Wisconsin filed a lawsuit on behalf of four library patrons, arguing that the removal of the books violated the patrons’ First Amendment rights to access information and ideas.
In 2009, a federal judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and ordered the books to be returned to the library’s shelves. The judge found that the county board’s decision to remove the books was motivated by hostility to LGBTQ people and was therefore unconstitutional.
Further, in Campbell v. St. Tammany Parish, which was decided by the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2003, the St. Tammany Parish government in Louisiana had attempted to withhold funding from the parish library system after it was discovered that the library had purchased several LGBTQ-themed books, including titles such as “Heather Has Two Mommies” by Lesléa Newman and “Daddy’s Roommate” by Michael Willhoite.
The library system sued the parish government, arguing that the funding cut was an unconstitutional attempt to censor the library’s collection based on its content. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, ruling that the library’s collection was protected by the First Amendment, and that the funding cut was an impermissible attempt to punish the library for exercising its right to make its own collection decisions.
Extensive caselaw also exists regarding the way libraries handle public access for children who use the facilities.
In North Carolina specifically, in 2010, the Forsyth County Public Library had purchased several LGBTQ-themed books, including titles such as “And Tango Makes Three” by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell and “The Full Spectrum: A New Generation of Writing About Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning, and Other Identities” edited by David Levithan and Billy Merrell, and placed them in the library’s children’s section. Some community members objected to the books’ content and demanded their removal. The library board ultimately decided to keep the books in circulation, but a group of individuals, led by the Reverend Ronald Baity, filed a lawsuit against the library, arguing that the books were promoting homosexuality to minors and were therefore inappropriate for children.
The case was ultimately dismissed by a federal judge, who ruled that the plaintiffs did not have standing to bring the lawsuit. The judge in Joyner v. Forsyth County Public Library ruled that the plaintiffs did not have standing to bring the lawsuit because they had not suffered any actual injury or harm as a result of the library’s decision to include LGBTQ-themed books in its collection.
In order to have standing to sue in a federal court, a plaintiff must show that they have suffered an injury that is concrete and particularized, and that the injury is fairly traceable to the defendant’s conduct and is likely to be redressed by a favorable court ruling.
In this case, the plaintiffs argued that the presence of the LGBTQ-themed books in the library’s children’s section was harmful to children and violated their rights as parents. However, the judge found that the plaintiffs had not shown that they or their children had actually been exposed to the books, or that the books had caused any specific harm.
Another example of a case where a public library could move a book or restrict access for children based on appropriate material is the case of Sund v. City of Wichita Falls (2002). In this case, a mother filed a lawsuit against the Wichita Falls Public Library after her young daughter checked out a book containing sexually explicit material. The library had a policy of placing books with adult content in a separate section of the library and requiring minors to have parental permission to access those materials.
The court found that the library’s policy was constitutional because it was based on the content of the materials and was narrowly tailored to address the legitimate concerns of parents who did not want their children to have access to sexually explicit material. The court noted that the library’s policy did not ban the book or prevent adults from accessing it, but simply required minors to have parental permission to check out materials with adult content, the parental permission being the library card the parent acquired on behalf of her daughter. This case illustrates that public libraries can have policies in place to address the concerns of parents and other community members while still upholding the principles of free speech and the free exchange of ideas. However, any such policies must be narrowly tailored and based on objective criteria, rather than on the content of the books themselves.
Lastly, there is legal precedent surrounding the potential consequences if Macon County leaders were to leave the Fontana Regional Library System, establish a county-structured library system, and then develop policies that would limit not just LGTBQ-themed material, but also books deemed to be sexually explicit.
Looking at Winters v. New York Public Library, which was decided by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York in 2010, an author attempted to donate copies of her book to several branches of the New York Public Library system. However, the library declined the donation, citing a policy that prohibited the acquisition of materials that contained “sexually explicit language, gratuitous violence, or discriminatory portrayal of race, gender or sexual orientation.”
The plaintiff sued the library, arguing that the policy was unconstitutional and that it violated her First Amendment rights to free speech and equal protection and the court agreed, ruling that the library’s policy was overly broad and vague, and that it constituted a form of content-based discrimination that was impermissible under the First Amendment.
James Joyce’s “Ulysses”, which was published in 1922, has been the subject of controversy and censorship since it was released.
The classic piece of literature follows the lives of several characters over the course of a single day in Dublin, Ireland. It is known for its experimental narrative style, stream-of-consciousness writing, and explicit depictions of sexual activity.
When the book was first published, it was immediately banned in several countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom, for its perceived obscenity and offensive content. The book was the subject of a number of legal challenges and was even burned by customs officials in New York City in 1923.
Despite these challenges, “Ulysses” has become recognized as one of the most important works of modernist literature, and is widely studied and celebrated today. The book’s explicit content has also been reevaluated over time, with many scholars and readers arguing that it is a reflection of the sexual attitudes and values of the time period in which it was written.
The historical significance of “Ulysses” illustrates the ongoing debate over the role of censorship in literature, and the importance of considering historical context when evaluating works of art and literature, which is the same argument scholars have made over the years regarding Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”.
The book has been banned numerous times over the years in various school districts and libraries due to its frequent use of racial slurs and its depiction of racial prejudice in 19th-century America.
Like “Ulysses,” proponents of the book argue that it is an important work of literature that provides historical context for understanding the history of racism and prejudice in the United States. They argue that the use of racial slurs in the book is not intended to be offensive, but rather is a reflection of the language and attitudes of the time period in which the book is set. They also argue that by reading and discussing the book, students can learn to critically analyze the issues of race, racism, and prejudice that continue to affect society today.
Lastly, it is also not a new argument or concern surrounding LGTBQ-themed literature and access in public settings.
Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray” was first published in 1890 and is about Dorian’s obsession with himself. Although the novel does not explicitly depict LGBTQ relationships or themes, Oscar Wilde was himself gay and the novel has been interpreted as containing subtle references to homosexuality and queer desire. As a result, the novel was met with controversy and criticism upon its publication, and Wilde himself was later imprisoned for homosexuality.
“The Picture of Dorian Gray” has been banned and censored numerous times over the years, with some critics arguing that its depiction of immoral behavior and queer desire is inappropriate for young readers. However, the novel remains widely studied and celebrated today as a classic work of Gothic literature, and as a groundbreaking exploration of queer desire and the relationship between art, beauty, and morality.