Palmer council asks Alaska AG whether list of challenged books violates state obscenity laws

PALMER — Palmer’s city council is asking Alaska’s attorney general to determine whether certain books violate state obscenity laws — and whether city librarians could be arrested for letting minors check out those books.

The request was sent Tuesday to Attorney General Treg Taylor in a letter signed by Palmer Mayor Steve Carrington and approved by the city council last month.

The letter comes after City Attorney Sarah Heath in late February advised the council to ask for direction rather than remove challenged books from city library shelves, a step she warned could open the city to a civil rights lawsuit. Officials said they also hope to provide support to city librarians following a call last year for their arrest.

The city council’s letter asks Taylor to clarify guidance he sent to school and public library officials statewide in November, in which he warned that allowing children to access books with sexual content could violate state criminal law and lead to prosecution.

The city asks Taylor to determine whether individual titles on a list of 56 books are “harmful to minors” and criminally obscene under state law and whether the librarians who check out those books to minors should be arrested and charged with a crime.

The list of 56 questioned books includes titles widely considered classics such as “Slaughterhouse-Five” by Kurt Vonnegut and “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison. The same list is under consideration by a Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District citizens’ advisory board empaneled last year to review challenged books.

“The Nov. 16 letter has spurred much public debate regarding what books are legally considered obscene materials as well as members of the public requesting for librarians to be arrested and prosecuted for checking out certain public library materials to minors, particularly those materials on the challenged book list,” the letter from Palmer states.


Officers with the Palmer Police Department visited the Palmer Library last year in response to a complaint from a Palmer-area resident that librarians were distributing books in violation of state law, Palmer City Manager John Moosey said in an interview. No further action was taken by police at that time, he said.

That police response has created an unfair working environment for the city’s librarians, Moosey said.

“You have people who are built to be librarians and are there to help, not to be accused of all these dastardly things,” he said.

The Palmer library employs four full-time and six part-time librarians, Moosey said.

Officials with the Palmer Police Department did not immediately respond to a request for more information.

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 Matanuska-Susitna Borough.

The letter to Taylor from Palmer is the latest in an ongoing series of government actions in Mat-Su over books some residents consider obscene and joins a nationwide trend as book challenges and bans have hit the highest level in decades.

At the borough level, a new citizen committee will take over the review of challenged books in borough library collections after a prior committee was suspended amid chaotic public hearings. It is modeled after a similar 11-member school district committee that has made recommendations on 31 books.

An ongoing lawsuit filed last year in U.S. District Court in Anchorage by the ACLU of Alaska and the Northern Justice Project on behalf of eight Mat-Su students contends the district violated students’ constitutional rights when it removed challenged books from library shelves ahead of its citizens’ advisory committee review. A ruling is pending on whether the district must return those books to shelves pending a final decision on the suit.

And in Wasilla, officials late last year opted to temporarily relabel a young adult section as “adult” while the city awaits the outcome of the lawsuit filed against the Mat-Su school district.

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Amy Bushatz

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