Mat-Su suspends challenged-book policy after meetings ‘devolve into a shouting match and name-calling’

PALMER — A Matanuska-Susitna Borough library policy that allows residents to recommend books they want permanently pulled from shelves is on hold after a mid-January book reconsideration hearing ended in chaos.

The indefinite suspension, announced last week by borough manager Mike Brown, will give officials time to examine the policy, with the goal of refocusing the process on “civil discourse,” Brown said in an interview this week. A borough library advisory board meeting scheduled for Feb. 13 has also been canceled.

The borough’s decision came after a chaotic meeting Jan. 18 called to hear a request to remove two young adult fiction books, “Red Hood” by Elana K. Arnold and “Identical” by Ellen Hopkins. A four-member borough committee ruled the books should stay on shelves.

Palmer resident Jackie Goforth, who regularly expresses her concerns about books she views as inappropriate during borough meetings, asked for the review because of what she described as the books’ sexual content.

Attendees, including borough assembly member Dee McKee, repeatedly interrupted the proceedings, which do not include public comment under committee rules.

Hugh Leslie, the borough’s recreation manager, served as the borough official chairing the meeting and at times struggled to maintain order amid a dozen audience interruptions and unsanctioned dialogue between the committee members and the crowd.

Then, after Goforth then took it upon herself to ask if any audience members wished to speak despite committee rules, McKee volunteered and moved to the podium. As she did so, Leslie abruptly announced the panel’s decision and adjourned the meeting over both McKee’s protests and loud arguments from the crowd.


Six days after the meeting, the borough manager issued a statement suspending the review process.

“The meetings have devolved into a shouting match and name-calling that is not producing a positive outcome for our community,” Brown’s statement said. “I acknowledge the value of having a process for patrons to challenge material, but until such time as we can come up with a different approach, there is no value in continuing to put materials through the current process.”

[Mat-Su school district committee recommends removal of books, including one by Toni Morrison]

Under the now-suspended reconsideration policy, protested books are examined in a public meeting by the borough committee that includes borough librarians, library advisory board members and the recreation manager.

The patron who filed the protest is permitted to testify about their request, and the committee decides whether the book will be removed from the system or relocated to a different library section. The policy does not allow for audience participation. Questioned books remain on library shelves during the review.

Brown said library staff will also post signs this week clarifying the young adult section is designed for children ages 16 and 17. In the past, the section has been broadly considered as appropriate for ages 14 and up.

“This is intended to communicate that there may be materials in the young adult section that some may deem inappropriate for 14- and 15-year-olds, and parents can make those decisions,” he said in the statement.

Libraries in Big Lake, Talkeetna, Trapper Creek, Willow and Sutton are operated by the borough, while those in Palmer and Wasilla are overseen by the cities.

The borough’s age clarification signage and policy suspension is the latest in an ongoing dust-up over controversial books in the Mat-Su.

Late last year, library officials in Wasilla opted to temporarily relabel their young adult fiction section as “adult fiction” after Goforth complained that a Wasilla city reconsideration process violated her civil liberties by limiting how she used her testimony time.

The Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District uses its own process, separate from the borough’s, to review challenged books.

Last year, district officials said they removed 56 books from school library shelves as part of the district’s book reconsideration process. A lawsuit filed by a pair of civil rights organizations on behalf of eight Mat-Su students contends the district violated their constitutional rights in doing so.

Amy Bushatz

Amy Bushatz is a veteran journalist based in the Mat-Su covering Valley news for the ADN.