Library Denied Access to New York Times Online

Politics spurred a library budget and spending decision in Citrus County, FL, in October, when the Citrus County Commission withdrew a motion for the Citrus County Library’s request to purchase a digital New York Times subscription. While library acquisitions are often scrutinized from a budget perspective, this refusal raised attention when county commissioners went on record with non-financial reasons for voting against the electronic subscription.

Citrus County Libraries logoPolitics spurred a library budget and spending decision in Citrus County, FL, in October, when the Citrus County Commission withdrew a motion for the Citrus County Library’s request to purchase a digital New York Times subscription. While library acquisitions are often scrutinized from a budget perspective, this refusal raised attention when county commissioners went on record with non-financial reasons for voting against the electronic subscription. Commissioner Scott Carnahan was quoted in the Tampa Bay Times deeming the New York Times “fake news,” adding, ““I agree with President Trump…. I don’t want the New York Times in this county”

According to Cynthia Oswald, Citrus County’s public information officer, the library system has five locations, and currently two of them receive a single copy of the print New York Times on weekdays and two copies of the Sunday Times. “This would have been the first digital newspaper in our system,” she told LJ. She added that the library system serves 70,000 cardholders in a county of 140,000 residents, including an unknown percentage of “snowbirds,” retirees who live there only part time. However offsetting snowbirds’ potential for less use than full time residents, those who originate near New York may well want to read the Times.

The comments were published in the Citrus Chronicle, then picked up by the Washington Post, and the story went viral. The commissioners heard from people all over the country, including some comments that included profanity or incendiary rhetoric—even, commission chair Brian Coleman told ABC affiliate WFTS, calling him a Nazi.

Not surprisingly, people on both sides of the political divide weighed in on the county commission’s decision. Those speaking out against it included Sandy Price, the library’s advisory board chairman, who pointed out that libraries are expected to present all points of view and that mission shouldn’t be determined by politics.

A few days after the initial vote, the board agreed to revisit the decision. On November 19, the county commissioners convened a public hearing well attended by both proponents and opponents of approving the subscription, although apparently more of the former. One resident claimed the county was 65 percent conservative as justification for the vote against purchasing the electronic Times subscription (although this statistic was not supported by the 2016 Citrus County election results). Florida was a battleground state in 2016, and Trump won by a margin of only 1.2 percent, and the electoral votes he picked up there helped secure his presidency. Others railed against the seeming censorship involved. Commissioner Jeff Kinnard noted in an email to LJ that “Paper editions of the New York Times, and other [periodicals], are available in our public libraries.” However, as others have noted, that does not help those who cannot access the library, either because of physical disabilities or location; whose local branches is one of the three out of five that don’t carry the newspaper; or those with vision disabilities who rely on electronic type that can be enlarged or read aloud via screen reading software.

Another objection was the cost—about $2,700 for an annual subscription. However, the digital subscription is about $300 lower than the print edition, and would make access equal for all library sites and cardholders.

A vote was held after the public hearing, and the digital subscription was voted down 3–2.

According to the Tampa Bay Times, at least 15 online fundraisers tried to foot the bill, having raised more than $7,000, or enough to pay for the subscription for more than two years, as of November 21. However, Price told the Tampa paper that the library could not use the funds as a result of the vote, and the money would have to be returned to the donors.

The story gained considerable notoriety and prompted responses from national groups. Nora Pilizzari, director of communications for the National Coalition Against Censorship, told LJ, “County commissioners are more than allowed to [believe the New York Times is fake news]. They’re allowed to not like the New York Times. But when they limit the use of government purse strings to determine what the public will have access to, we consider that government censorship.”

She went on to say that this action is at odds with a library’s mission. “The library’s job is to provide users with the amount and type of information they want and need to consume. Librarians decide what benefits the community in terms of books, periodicals, newspapers, or journals. It’s not for a county commissioner to decide. To us, it’s a clear-cut case of bias.”

The American Library Association (ALA) issued a critical response to the commissioners’ initial decision to not support the request in early November. Deborah Caldwell Stone, director of the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom, told LJ, “We’re always concerned about these types of actions. Our concern is on grounds not purely related to improving access, but from the viewpoint that this is discrimination. Whether or not you agree with it, the New York Times is a well-accepted resource that should be available.”

She added that Citrus County was simply trying to stay current. “Surrounding library systems had adopted digital subscriptions. The library was trying to keep up with the times. Digital subscriptions also save money and provide much broader access. From our perspective, adding the digital subscription would have improved the library’s services. Refusing it based on a disagreement with editorial policy is short-sighted and violates the spirit of the First Amendment.”

According to Oswald, this doesn’t mean the end of the discussion. “The Library Advisory Board will reconvene to discuss options for the future regarding digital,” she said. “The commissioners want to look at the policy for digital media.” She said she could not answer questions regarding political statements made by the commissioners, including the reference to “fake news.”

Requests for interviews with library staff were turned down on the basis that the library isn’t allowed to comment on statements and decisions of the Citrus County board of commissioners.

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