A federal lawsuit challenges Prattville libraries’ policies

A coalition that includes Read Freely Alabama, the Alabama Library Association and many adult and minor patrons of the Autauga-Prattville Public Library filed a motion in federal court Thursday to block policies recently passed by the new board.

The complaint, filed Thursday afternoon in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama, asks the court to enjoin the policy on the grounds that its provisions are excessive, vague and create unconstitutional discrimination based on content.

“A public body “has no power to restrict speech on the basis of its message, ideas, subject matter or content,” wrote a lawyer for the coalition, citing a 1972 Supreme Court ruling. Chicago Police Department v. Mosley. “The Autauga-Prattville Public Library Board of Trustees is doing it anyway. The board has adopted a set of policies that prevent children and adults from accessing the library’s wide collection of books and other materials, in violation of the First Amendment. The policy blatantly eschews speech on the basis of its content, unduly restricts access to material far beyond what the Supreme Court allows, and operates under unclear standards ripe for arbitrary administration.”

A policy adopted by APPL’s ​​new board of trustees on February 8, 2024 prohibits the library from purchasing or otherwise adding to its collections “any materials advertised to consumers 17 years of age and under that contain
including, but not limited to, obscenity, sexual conduct, sexual intercourse, sexual orientation, gender identity or
gender nonconformity.”

At the time, the board had just undergone a monumental change in its makeup when the Autauga County Commission decided to waive its decades-old unwritten gentlemen’s agreement under which the library board recommends candidates when vacancies arise. In response to the perceived snub, all remaining board members resigned, allowing the district to appoint three more people to the board and gain a 4-3 majority.

Chairman Ray Boles, nominated by Commissioner Larry Stoudemire and unanimously approved by the commission, said at a recent commission meeting that the board abandoned “truly far-right” policies as part of a broader statewide strategy and explained its plans to scale back local politics to accommodate to state policy.

Read Freely Alabama is the main group opposing such policies in Prattville and beyond, originally formed as Read Freely Prattville to oppose a group calling itself Clean Up Prattville. This group has now spread across the state under the name Clean Up Alabama.

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“It’s about who should decide what books our children read – parents or politicians,” said Angie Hayden of Read Freely Alabama. “Though we come from across the religious and political spectrum, the group that has come together to take action on this issue is united by a deep pride in our home state – and its deep history of fighting for civil rights – and we cannot remain on the sidelines in this critical moment.”

Laura Clark, a Clean Up Alabama supporter who is now the board’s attorney, hinted at her legal argument during a library board meeting last year. Clark and her husband Matt Clark, now senior counsel to Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Tom Parker, told the board that books on library shelves are not subject to the First Amendment because they are considered “government speech.”

Laura Clark cemented this theory in an editorial from the far-right, anti-LGBTQ website 1819 News.

“Books in a public library are considered government speeches United States v. American Library Assn., Inc. (2003) Clark wrote in an opinion piece. “In this case, the Supreme Court clarified that the government has content-based discretion when deciding what private speech to make available to the public – private speech such as books. Therefore, removing inappropriate books from the children’s section does not violate the First Amendment. In fact, the First Amendment does not apply to this issue. Moreover, the library has broad discretion in deciding whether to remove these books or move them to another location.”

Will Bardwell, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs, said they have different understandings of “government speech.”

“Courts have defined government speech as a type of speech that implies support from the government,” Bardwell said. “There is nothing in the history of public libraries to suggest that their books have any government endorsement. Libraries are supposed to be places where competing ideas can be found and readers can be trusted to draw their own conclusions.”

The state of Florida made a similar attempt at “government speech” in a case involving book censorship in Escambia County school libraries. U.S. District Judge Kent Wetherell condemned this argument in a January ruling, questioning “how any reasonable person would view the contents of a school library (or any other library) as governmental endorsement of the views expressed in the books on the library’s shelves.”

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Regardless, the notion that library books are government speech rather than First Amendment speech is the reason the Clarks cited as the only thing preventing their conservative law firm, the Alabama Center for Law and Liberty, from suing the then-library board.

Instead of suing the board, Clark apparently worked with Clean Up Alabama to draft the rules, which the board adopted on Feb. 8, even though he had not yet been elected as its attorney.

“The Autauga-Prattville Public Library Board of Trustees’ apparent partnership with neighboring Moms for Liberty Clean Up Alabama makes it the latest in a disturbing trend of far-right efforts to suppress books that reflect viewpoints they disagree with in communities across the country.” said Craig Scott, president of the Alabama Library Association. “As state lawmakers rush to expand the policies introduced in Prattville, it is critical that courts
explain that in our democracy we cannot discriminate against or restrict the freedom to read.”

The plaintiffs in the case are represented by Democracy Forward, a nonprofit legal organization that works with neighbors in communities to challenge other book ban policies across the country, and Wiggins Childs, a nonprofit
Alabama-based law firm with a strong civil rights practice.

“Freedom to read is fundamental to democracy, and efforts by extremists to impose their personal beliefs on politicians who determine what books can be included in public libraries are dangerous to democracy,” said Skye Perryman, president and CEO of Democracy Forward. “Democracy Forward is honored to work with Alabama families and librarians to stop this
extremist attempt to censor books.”