Removing flagged books from Palmer library shelves could violate patrons’ civil rights, city attorney warns

PALMER — Palmer city officials should not block users from accessing library books flagged by community members as controversial because doing so could be a civil rights violation, an attorney for the city told the city council at a meeting Tuesday.

The recommendation came during a more than one-hour briefing by city attorney Sarah Heath on state and federal rules for removing or restricting access to books in the city’s library collection.

Under state law, library books can be removed or have their access restricted only if they can be considered “obscene” or “harmful to minors” by a “reasonable person” in any part of the U.S., not just by a group of local community members, Heath said.

Taking flagged books off the shelf or even relocating them to a different part of the library can open up the city to a lawsuit, she said. U.S. district courts across the country have ruled such actions to be civil liberties violations, she said.

“I would strongly discourage the council from making those determinations, solely because the case law has really held for it to be overwhelmingly considered a First Amendment violation,” she said.

While no such rulings have yet been made in Alaska, that could soon change, she said. An ongoing lawsuit filed late last year in U.S. District Court in Anchorage contends the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District violated students’ constitutional rights when officials removed 56 challenged books from library shelves early this year.

A hearing is scheduled April 1 on whether the school district must return those books to library shelves pending a final decision on the suit.


Heath suggested the council instead work with state lawmakers to alter what “harmful to minors” and “obscene” mean under Alaska law, a step that would give local governments the OK to reconsider books under those refreshed state legal standards, so long as such a change is not found by a federal court to be unconstitutional.

She also suggested that city officials ask Alaska Attorney General Treg Taylor to decide whether certain books should be removed or restricted statewide.

A letter from Taylor last year warned school and public library officials that they should block children’s access to books with sexual content.

Heath’s briefing Tuesday comes as officials in Wasilla and the Mat-Su Borough grapple with their own library reconsideration policies after Palmer resident Jackie Goforth, who regularly speaks on her concerns about books she views as inappropriate during borough and city meetings, requested a series of books be removed because of what the patron described as the books’ sexual content. Those books include “Identical” by Ellen Hopkins, “Let’s Talk About It” by Erika Moen and “Red Hood” by Elana K. Arnold.

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

Borough officials late last month indefinitely suspended their challenged-book reconsideration policy after a review meeting ended in chaos. They also posted signs at the borough’s five libraries clarifying that 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 older.

In Wasilla, city officials late last year opted to temporarily relabel a library section designed for young adults as “adult” while the city awaits the outcome of the lawsuit filed against the Mat-Su school district and additional instructions from the state attorney general.

Amy Bushatz

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