Letters from readers on what matters in Lafayette.

VOICES: How censorship came to Lafayette

Library board members Stephanie Armbruster and Robert Judge Photo by Travis Gauthier

The agenda item sounded innocuous enough. Under section VIII, New Business, for the Feb. 21 meeting was item C. Collection Development Policy. Board will be asked to discuss and take action on Lafayette Public Library Collection Development Policy, Section X.

I’m an activist, an advocate for the library, and so every month, when the agenda for the monthly meeting of the Board of Control is released, I immediately go over it with a fine tooth comb, looking for any votes on policy changes that might signal potential problems for the community.

Section X? I wondered. What the heck is Section X? That was the beginning.

Section X, as it turns out, deals with Requests for Reconsideration, the forms any patron can fill out when they encounter material in the library they believe is offensive and needs to be removed. That is, in fact, the only thing Section X deals with. Even though the larger document is titled “Collection Development,” there is nothing in Section X about the acquisition of books. That entire portion of the policy, in fact, is devoted solely to the procedures for one thing, and one thing only: how one goes about getting a book banned.

In a flash, it dawned on me: Section X was on the agenda so the board could make banning books easier.

In a nutshell, under the old rules, if someone finds a book, movie or other library holding offensive, they first fill out a form found on the library’s website. Library Director Danny Gillane will then call an ad hoc committee composed of two professional librarians with extensive training in collection development and one Board of Control member. The ad hoc committee will meet, discuss the material in question, and make a determination as to whether the material should remain in the library’s collection. The patron will then receive a letter delivering the committee’s verdict. If the patron doesn’t agree with the committee’s decision, that person has the right to appeal to the full Board of Control, which will take up the matter as an agenda item at the next full board meeting.

It’s a process with which some on the Board of Control were already well acquainted. At least two members, Board President Robert Judge and Stephanie Armbruster, had served on ad hoc reconsideration committees in the past couple of months. One was for a book called This Book is Gay, by Juno Dawson. In October, Michael Lunsford, a paid conservative political operative from St. Martin Parish, filed a Request for Reconsideration for the book, which he called “pornography” on his website and social media accounts. 

The book had been sitting in the library since it was published in 2016 but had recently been released as part of a list of objectionable books by MassResistance, an organization classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, so was therefore targeted by Lunsford. The Reconsideration Committee consisted of two librarians and Stephanie Armbruster, and the vote was 2-1 in favor of retention. Lunsford, predictably, appealed to the full board. A raucous November 2021 board meeting followed that saw more than 30 speakers passionately advocate to keep the book on the shelves. Not one speaker asked that the book be removed. Multiple members of the board admitted they had not read the book. Even so, the board was poised to vote for removal, until Gillane proposed integrating the entire Teen Non-Fiction section into Adult Non-Fiction. 

It was, unfortunately, a harbinger of things to come. 

Another book challenge by Lunsford followed in November, for The V Word, by Amber J. Keyser. Robert Judge was the board member on that committee, and the vote was the same, 2-1 for retention. By now, it was hard to ignore what the American Library Association was calling an “unprecedented” number of book challenges being filed across America, because it seemed that the hard-right conservative fad of banning books had made its way to Acadiana.

Of course, with LPL’s teen Non-Fiction section now a thing of the past, Lunsford didn’t appeal the Reconsideration Committee’s decision. He didn’t have to.

So when Section X showed up on the agenda of the February 2022 Board of Control meeting, it immediately set off alarm bells. The board had already looked at the policy and updated it as recently as 2019. And yet, here was Judge, who had set the night’s agenda, ready to change the policy again. It didn’t take much speculation to guess why.

It unfolded perfectly, as  Judge presided over a symphony of chaos designed to wear down any and all remaining attendees. The agenda was packed with controversial items guaranteed to take the meeting long past its usual hour to hour and a half time frame. The new Northeast Library Exploratory Committee report had been included, but no vote had been scheduled, sowing confusion and guaranteeing more than an hour of public comment, debate, and motions before the vote was finally taken. 

Another controversial policy, across-the-board restricted library cards for all minors aged 14 and under, had been added as well — with no guidelines and only an opt-out provision — engendering yet another protracted discussion and public comment period before the matter was finally tabled. By the time the issue of Section X came before the Board, many community members had gone home to dinner and family, exhausted after long days of work and now hours of debate and drama. Only a few die-hard voices of opposition remained. Still, we waited to see what changes Judge had in mind for the book challenges policy. 

“This may require a legal interpretation at some point,” Judge said. “It is composed of two library staff members appointed by the library director and one library board member. That is to be changed … that the Reconsideration Committee will be made up of three board members.”

Listening back to the audio recording of the meeting doesn’t capture the audience’s reaction properly. You can hear nervous laughter, some murmuring in the crowd. But to be there was to see two reactions: the faces of people who were used to this man’s arrogance and overreach, but who still believe in the system, who were stunned by just how far he thought he could go. Is he even serious right now?  Those faces seemed to say. This can’t possibly be real. They can’t do this. Can they?

Laughter was the other reaction, the kind reserved for those who have endured decades of injustice, and who know how decks come stacked: Of course it will be three board members. Of course we won’t have a voice. This is where we’ve been headed all along. 

In the end, one of the newest board members, David Pitre, offered what he may have thought was a “compromise,” which isn’t really a compromise at all: two board members and one librarian on the Reconsideration Committee. A counter proposal, offered by board member James Thomas, to increase the number of librarians and board members each by one, keeping the current proportions, was voted down. 

Four board members — Judge, Armbruster, Pitre and Boudreaux — voted for Pitre’s proposed idea.  The change deals an enormous blow to our award-winning public library system, to ALA guidelines and principles, and to our constitutional rights as Americans. 

It’s interesting to note that three of the Board Members who voted for this injustice — Judge, Armbruster and Boudreaux — spent a large part of 2021 pontificating about how the library needs to be less “politicized,” less “agenda driven,” and more in line with the “conservative majority” values in our community. 

Yet this decision, along with other proposed ideas Judge has tried to push through, demonstrates the opposite. How can one claim less political influence when they are being guided by a dark-money political operative? How can one claim they have no agenda when every meeting is focused on micromanaging aspects of librarians’ jobs and attempts to change policy to give more power to the Board of Control, instead of prioritizing the most imperative need, which is increased funding for the library? And finally, how can one claim to possess integrity when rules are changed simply to push through their agenda? 

During the meeting, Armbruster said, “With the current committee makeup, I don’t know that we are satisfying the people who complained,” as if she believes all policy should be written to favor those few citizens who initiate book challenges. As a public body, the library serves a wide variety of people: not just taxpayers, not just conservatives, and not just board members. It is egalitarian, democratic, and anti-authoritarian — chock full of the sort of knowledge that people like Robert Judge and Stephanie Armbruster don’t want anyone to have access to. And that, of course, is what makes it wonderful.

If one were the cynical type, one might think Pitre’s proposal at the meeting was the soft pitch offered to take the sting out of Judge’s cruel joke, but the outcome was nonetheless the same — Reconsideration Committees now are now designed to ban any book Lunsford, or anyone else, decides needs to go. It’s nothing short of an outright assault on the First Amendment, and though it can be tied to similar threats on a nationwide scale, we should not lose sight of what has happened here: An attempt to gut the Lafayette Public Library is now backed by policy.

There was one small light shining through that darkness, however. Since Section X had been used so infrequently in the past, no one had ever bothered to ask whether the “closed meetings” of the Reconsideration Committees it outlined violated state Open Meetings laws. Turns out most legal experts agreed they did. Now that the public and the press were paying attention, changes would have to be made. 

When Robert Judge pushed through the rule change at the Feb. 21 board meeting, there was already a Reconsideration Request waiting to be assigned to a committee. It was for a DVD titled Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood. The patron who brought the request called it “appalling trash.” Since the request was filed before the change, it would have to be assigned using the old system of two librarians and one board member. And this time the meeting was open to the public.

The public responded.

Fifteen people, including world-renowned UL Professor of Francophone Studies and founder of Festivals Acadiens et Créoles Barry Ancelet, showed up and decried the dangers of censorship in our public library system. Loudly and passionately, they made clear that censorship is not a community standard for Lafayette. When the opportunity for a motion for removal arose, neither board member James Thomas, nor librarians Gregory Lavergne or Devin Melancon, made that motion. It was a welcome moment, if bittersweet, as I know many more challenges to materials at LPL are on their way.

Across the country, book bans are sweeping through libraries, targeting the literature and letters of LGBTQ+ communities and people of color. Why and how they succeed are important questions, but they aren’t necessarily the right ones. The insidious nature of censorship means that it can be used as a tool against anyone, at any time. And so a better question might be: Why isn’t everyone fighting these policies?

That censorship has arrived in Lafayette should surprise no one. This is a beautiful, diverse community, after all, forged from an amalgamation of cultures united by our joie de vivre and, sometimes, in the face of terrible adversity. Intolerant people can find plenty to be offended by and plenty of things to target.

What they won’t find is complacency.