By Shereen Siewert and Damakant Jayshi

Six months after an attorney’s report concluded that the Marathon County Board violated First Amendment protections by threatening to reduce funding over a book ban controversy, the public library is once again being asked to consider removing a title from its shelves.

According to an official notice and agenda, the Marathon County Public Library Board will hear an appeal Monday over one challenged book.

A library patron filed the complaint on April 26 regarding “Let’s Talk About it: The Teen’s Guide to Sex, Relationships, and Being a Human,” by Erika Moen and Matthew Nolan. Library Director Leah Giordano shared a committee’s response after a review – retaining the book on the MCPL’s shelves – on May 23.

“With regard to the book Let’s Talk About It: The Teen’s Guide to Sex, Relationships, and Being a Human’ by Erika Moen and Matthew Nolan, it is the unanimous recommendation of this committee that the item be retained in the collection of the Marathon County Public Library,” the committee said.

The review was blunt on a request the MCPL “develop, adopt and
implement a rating system” for books. The committee unanimously recommended the Marathon County Public Library not do so.

The committee cautioned that, “to create or adopt a book rating system, as requested by the patron, could potentially lead to a violation of the First Amendment.”

Nationally, the book has garnered significant positive reviews for its frank discussion on “relationships, friendships, gender, sexuality, anatomy, body image, safe sex, sexting, jealousy, rejection, sex education, and more,” according to publisher Penguin Random House.

The publisher describes the graphic novel as a “comprehensive, thoughtful, well-researched graphic novel guide to everything (teens) need to know.”

Publishers Weekly, in a starred review, called the book: “A refreshingly inclusive read…. offering comprehensive, no-nonsense information on sex and sexuality.”

But some critics are asking the library to reconsider its placement.

The request is renewing discussion on the legal implications of removing books from the public library, part of a national debate. Legal analysts say libraries cannot be forced to remove books based on the personal opinions of others – including county supervisors.

The Library Board of Trustees on Dec. 20, 2022 engaged an outside law firm to complete a report regarding last year’s challenges to books contained within the MCPL’s collection, along with related funding discussions held last fall by Marathon County Supervisors.

“Removing books—based solely upon content and viewpoint – violates the First Amendment,” a Jan. 23, 2023 report from von Briesen & Roper, S.C., declares. “Similarly, deciding to reduce [Marathon County Public Library] funding – based upon MCPL’s refusal to remove books challenged on the basis of content and viewpoint – violates the First Amendment,” which protects the right of both adults and children to receive information.

Some supervisors in 2022 pushed the library to remove titles they found offensive, despite legal advice.

For example, David Baker of Dist. 23, sent a request Oct. 18, 2022 to Marathon County Corporation Counsel Mike Puerner for a legal opinion as to whether supervisors could pass an ordinance prohibiting the library from lending certain item. Puerner’s response makes it clear that a county board is not authorized to restrict materials in such a way.

Puerner also addressed First Amendment implications and cautioned the board about the issue in a memo that pointed to a U.S. Supreme Court decision that concluded there are limits to the discretion of governing officials to remove library books. That decision also held that local officials removing books from library shelves to deny access to ideas with which they disagreed is unconstitutional.

Puerner, while warning the supervisors on their stated attempt to punish the library officials – board and staff – said that materials in the library have statutory protections.

Other books have also been the focus of scrutiny by some people who view them as pornographic or improper. Last year, the Library Board of Trustees endorsed a review committee’s decision to retain “Making a Baby” by Rachel Greener and Clare Owen and “You Be You! The Kids Guide to Gender, Sexuality and Family” by Jonathan Branfman and Julie Benbassat.

At that time, the review committee said a patron’s objections should not keep others from accessing the information contained within this book.

“When a parent/guardian signs up for a child’s library card at the Marathon County Public Library, the parent/guardian acknowledges that they are responsible for determining what resources are appropriate for that child,” the committee wrote. “However, they cannot infringe on the liberty of other parents/guardians to determine what is acceptable for their children or to restrict access for any individual.”

The committee also reminded the complaining parents of their own responsibility.

 “Librarians and governing bodies should maintain that parents – and only parents – have the right and the responsibility to restrict the access of their children – and only their children – to library resources,” the five-member review committee said, pointing to the American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights.

Courts have dismissed lawsuits calling for book bans

The courts across the country have usually dismissed lawsuits calling for the ban of books, a fact that Corporate Counsel Puerner reminded the Board of Supervisors and ban proponents last year.

In addition to deeming the call for banning books “unconstitutional,” the courts have used some of the choices words and phrases related to book ban attempt: “ignorance,” “heckler’s veto,” and cannot “remove books from school library shelves simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books.”

Some of the books that were subjects of these lawsuits include “The King James Bible,” “Catch-22” “considered one of the best novels of the 20th century), “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”, “The Merchant of Venice” and “Oliver Twist.”

The national controversy

The controversy over book bans at public libraries revolves around the question of whether certain books should be removed or restricted from library collections based on their content or viewpoints. Some individuals or groups may find certain books offensive, objectionable, or inappropriate for various reasons, such as explicit content, sensitive topics, or opposing viewpoints. They may argue that such books should not be available to the public, particularly children or young adults.

Opponents of book bans argue that removing books based on content or viewpoint violates the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, which protects the right to free speech and access to information. They believe that public libraries should provide a wide range of perspectives and allow individuals to make their own choices about what to read.

The controversy often involves legal and ethical considerations. Library boards and administrators must weigh the rights of patrons to access information against concerns about potentially offensive or controversial materials. It can also raise questions about censorship, intellectual freedom, and the role of public libraries in serving diverse communities.

Ultimately, decisions regarding book bans or challenges are typically made by library boards or committees, following established policies and guidelines. These decisions may involve public hearings, legal consultations, and assessments of the book’s merits, educational value, and community standards.

The specific controversy over book bans can vary from case to case, depending on the book in question and the arguments put forth by those advocating for or against its removal.

The library board meets at noon on Monday at the Marathon County Public Library, 300 N. First St., Wausau. Public comment at the start of the meeting is allowed.

Efforts to reach Giordano over the weekend were not successful.