Advocacy Efforts Impact Louisiana Legislative Session

It has been a busy legislative session in the Louisiana House, with several bills poised to impact libraries and library workers halted at various points, while others have been approved and moved on to the Senate. As they proliferate, grassroots library advocacy organizations are stepping up to combat them.

cupola and beacon of the Louisiana state capitol with flags
Louisiana State Capitol
By User:Maha, CC BY 2.5, Link

It has been a busy legislative session in the Louisiana House, with several bills poised to impact libraries and library workers halted at various points, while others have been approved and moved on to the Senate. As they proliferate, grassroots library advocacy organizations are stepping up to combat them.

According to the Acadiana Advocate, House Bill 777 would have prohibited any public employee from spending public funds with the American Library Association (ALA). Anyone who does would be subject to up to two years in prison or a fine of up to $1,000. Mike Russo, one of the current cochairs of the Louisiana Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee (LLA IFC) and collection analysis librarian with Louisiana State University, as well as a 2012 Library Journal Mover and Shaker, says of HB 777: “Passage of this bill [would] jeopardize the accreditation of libraries throughout the state. This is particularly pernicious with respect to university libraries and higher education writ large. Disengagement from ALA [would] also render LSU's library science program—the only one in the state—basically meaningless.”

HB 777 is considered dead for the current legislative session after being involuntarily deferred in early May, according to a legislative tracker maintained by Louisiana Citizens Against Censorship (La-CAC), a grassroots nonprofit organization working to support intellectual freedom. Lynette Mejia, executive director of La-CAC, pointed out that community activism was key in shaping the opinions of committee members. “Several [legislators], including one who has stated concerns for book content and voted for restrictions to book access in the past, noted how many emails they had received from constituents in the days leading up to the committee hearing,” she said. “The clear lack of public support had an influence on how they thought about the bill and drove them to dig deeper into the implications of criminalizing librarians.” Mejia noted that opposition to 777 came from both sides of the aisle.

House Bill 414 and House Bill 545 would have amended current statutes by creating exceptions for public and school libraries in the state’s laws on obscenity, removing those libraries from protection and opening them up for legal action if a community member were to find something they considered objectionable. Under the bill, a library worker “could face jail time if a judge determines that a book in a library fails the Miller test, a three-pronged test for determining whether speech or text is legally obscene. Louisiana’s obscenity law provides for two to five years in prison and up to a $10,000 fine if the offense involves an unmarried minor,” according to the Louisiana Illuminator.

Russo saw 414 and 545 as “intimidation tactics” following the actions of then–attorney general and current Louisiana governor, Jeff Landry. While campaigning for parental rights in education, Landry encouraged citizens to report graphic sexual content found in public libraries via an online form. “Proponents of this legislation cannot provide a single example of a librarian promoting obscenity; they are assuming that librarians will be so intimidated, they will self-censor,” said Russo. “In the meantime, librarians will be subject to harassment by anyone with an axe to grind and threatened with investigation and prosecution by authorities.”

“As librarians, we know that there are already policies in place to address concerns about content in the library and these reconsideration policies have been effective for many years,” noted Tiffany Whitehead, cochair of the LLA IFC and library director at the Episcopal School of Baton Rouge. Whitehead is active with the Louisiana Association of School Librarians (LASL), and noted that the organization has been working diligently to “to share resources so librarians and concerned citizens can contact their representatives and stay informed about these bills.”

Whitehead mentioned that several public and school librarians in the state have already been the victim of slander, including School Library Journal ’s 2021 School Librarian of the Year Amanda Jones, who filed a defamation suit after being personally attacked online following her anticensorship statements at a 2021 library board meeting in Livingston Parish. While Jones’s original suit and subsequent appeal were denied, she plans to re-petition.

At the time of publication, HB 414 is listed as being referred to the House Administration of Criminal Justice, although Russo doesn’t see discussion of this item on any upcoming schedules. HB 545 has seen multiple dates come and go for debate on the floor, with each resulting in the item being pulled from the day’s business. The bill is currently listed as “called from the calendar” and “returned to the calendar,” but no upcoming dates appear to be planned for debate. Additionally, HB 640, an iteration of the failed HB 946, would grant power to local parish governments to remove library board members without cause. HB 640 is not currently on any legislative schedule. But while “these bills seem to be fading now, one must always be wary of next session,” said Russo.

Mejia believes that educational campaigns such as those created by La-CAC and LASL are crucial in bringing both legislators and the public to a shared awareness of the issues facing libraries. “The [national] anti-library and anti-reading contingent is actually fairly small, and that’s the case here as well,” she told LJ. “The vast majority of people in our state want libraries to continue to be free to provide information to our communities, and they certainly don’t support librarians being fined or jailed for simply doing their jobs. However, if that majority is silent, the only voices being heard will be those of the opposition, which is, of course, how this type of legislation gets passed. They count on people being too busy or afraid to speak up. When we do, the results are truly amazing.”

While these bills have not progressed, there has been some forward momentum on others. HB 974 has moved to the Senate; this bill would “remove the requirement that directors of parish library systems receive state certification, which requires librarians to pass an exam and hold a master’s degree in library science,” according to the Illuminator. If signed into law, libraries could hire directors with any type of master’s degree. HB 848, which has also passed the House, would grant local parish authorities the ability to exercise control over the budgeting process generally overseen by library boards. “We are continuing to work hard to defeat HBs 848 and 974,” said Whitehead.

“This continues to be a long, exhausting fight for those of us on the front lines,” said Mejia, “but as Dr. [Martin Luther] King said, the arc of the moral universe does bend toward justice, and we won’t stop until libraries are once again protected from these assaults.”

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