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Smut allegations lead to contentious debate at overflowing library board meeting in Idaho

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A crowd of over 100 people attend the Meridian Library District?s board of trustees monthly meeting on Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2022.
A crowd of over 100 people attend the Meridian Library District?s board of trustees monthly meeting on Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2022. During the public comment section, some citizens spoke on the issue of the role of the library in the community and on the topic of books containing nudity or depictions of sex that are available to children. Photo Gallery

BOISE, Idaho — More than 100 people crowded into a room at the Meridian Library’s main branch on Wednesday night for a heated debate where people voiced concerns or offered their support about what books were accessible to children.

Chairs were stuck in every crevice of the room, and, when they were filled, people lined up in the hallway and leaned against the walls, overflowing into the entryway. A handful of attendees showed up with copies of “It’s Perfectly Normal” or “Sex is a Funny Word” — sex education books for children that have become increasingly controversial. Others wore T-shirts in support of LGBTQ rights or the freedom to read.

In line with similar movements across the U.S., the Meridian Library District’s monthly board meetings — events that normally draw few people — became a target after a group of Idaho residents accused the library of distributing “smut filled pornography” to children.

Over the past few weeks, members of the group encouraged people to go the library board’s meeting to speak out about the materials. The posts made the rounds on social media — drawing both support and opposition.

The board’s Wednesday agenda did not include an item about specific library materials, but dozens of people on each side of the issue spoke passionately during public comment, sharing personal and emotional stories. At times, the meeting turned contentious.

Those who came out in support of the Meridian Library made up a majority of the comments. Supporters called the library a safe place for their families, especially during difficult times in their lives. Parents are responsible for the books their children choose to read, they said. Libraries should have diverse and inclusive collections with books for everyone, they argued.

One supporter even broke out into song at the end of his public comment, before presenting the board with a $20 bill as a donation.

“You’re being well-taught to be afraid, of people who love a different way,” Eric Gironda sang to the library board and packed room. “For some folks who come here from some other place, you’re being quite carefully taught.”

But others accused the library of having sexually explicit material accessible to children. They said they weren’t trying to defund libraries or ban books — although one person who is a leader in the effort posted “Time to defund the Meridian Library Tax District” on Facebook earlier this month. Instead, many said they believed certain books should be put in places where children didn’t have access and called for an end to the sexualization of children.

At one point during the meeting, a woman began yelling “groomers” into the meeting room while someone was speaking. Several times throughout the meeting, as people cheered or clapped for comments, board chair Megan Larsen repeatedly banged her gavel and asked the crowd to remain silent.

Several speakers shared personal stories about their library experiences during the meeting.

Some talked about how libraries were their safe haven growing up. They’d walk or bike to their local libraries and fill their backpacks with books. Others told of bringing their kids to the Meridian Library locations. Their children were always excited to spend time at the library and participate in library programs, they said.

Supporters said the accusations made against the Meridian Library were baseless. A small group of people shouldn’t get to choose what an entire community reads, they said. Parents are capable of making those decisions for their families, they said.

Others talked about the books they wished they had growing up — books that could have helped them understand that what was happening to them wasn’t OK.

Kama Parrish said she was groomed growing up. Someone who was part of her church touched her inappropriately when she was 13, she said. But, at the time, she didn’t have the words to verbalize what had happened to her. She tried to tell a peer and used the word rape. She was laughed at, she said and didn’t tell another person what happened for a decade.

“I didn’t know the words for inappropriate touch. I didn’t know the word molested. I didn’t know about boundaries,” Parrish said.

During her comment, she held up the book “Sex is a Funny Word,” one of the five books included on a flier shared by the Idaho Liberty Dogs that people claimed were examples of the “graphic” and “disgusting” pornography. The Idaho Liberty Dogs are a political group that mobilized against COVID-19 public health measures in 2020 and, in June, counter-protested against abortion rights activists.

Parrish pointed to sections in the book about boundaries and inappropriate touching. The passages also included a paragraph on what to do if people don’t believe you, Parrish said.

“If I had had this book and this knowledge, that pedophile could be in jail now,” she said.

“Sex is a Funny Word” is a children’s comic book that features families of different gender identities and sexual orientations. It is intended to be a resource for families who want to “talk with their kids about sex and sexuality in a positive, loving, inclusive and joyful way,” the back of the book reads.

Amy Whaley said she was also groomed and sexually assaulted starting when she was 5.

“By God, it didn’t happen at a fricken library. It happened with a relative, not with a book,” she said.

Had she been given books that showed what was happening to her was wrong, she said, maybe that could have saved her.

“Don’t you dare tell me this is a grooming place. This is a place I bring my children because I know they’re safe. And we use these books as tools,” Whaley said.

The library was a place where others said they could find resources to teach their children about difficult topics. One woman said when her husband was deployed, she used the book “It’s Perfectly Normal,” to teach her boys about sexual education. The book authored by Robie H. Harris is a guide for children on sexual health. The book was first published in 1994, but has had several anniversary editions released since. It has appeared on the American Library Association’s Most Challenged Books list several times because of claims it shows sexually explicit images.

Others said the claims against the library were attempts to censor LGBTQ voices and experiences. People were making dangerous arguments that implied being LGBTQ was a choice, they said.

Don Gelsomino, who during his public statement identified himself as Christian, conservative and gay, called the arguments people were making “unfounded” and “incendiary.”

“The accusations of grooming, a common dog whistle by bigots, implying that being LGBT is a choice,” he said. “I can speak from personal, profound spiritual experience, that it is not a choice. I find it ironic that the same voices wanting to dismantle our library (are) the same that decry so-called cancel culture.”

Many others said they’ve found books that they claim are inappropriate for children easily accessible in the Meridian Library.

Jon Eisfelder, who identified himself as one of the founding members of Concerned Citizens of Meridian, said graphic materials have found their way into the hands of children as young as 5 years old. The group wants to protect children from “Marxist indoctrination” he alleged is sweeping the nation.

“We are not here to ban books. …We are 100% in support of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution,” he said. “But we are here to do what we can to ensure the library conforms to the wishes of concerned citizens of Meridian.”

Certain books should be restricted in the same way movies are rated and restricted, Eisfelder said. Not all parents are fully aware of the materials their kids can access in libraries, he said.

Mike Hon, who also identified himself as a founding member of the Concerned Citizens of Meridian, said the group tried earlier to communicate with the library’s board about its concerns.

Their objective, he said, is to come up with a solution to what he called a “growing problem: unrestricted access to highly obscene sexual materials by children as young as 5 years old.”

“We’re simply asking the library staff and the board of trustees to work with us to alleviate this problem and create a truly safe space for our children,” Hon said.

When the group met with board members, he said they presented ideas to restrict access to certain books, including checking IDs or relocating books to areas clearly marked for adults.

“However, the panel would have none of it,” he said. “They cited concerns about censorship and First Amendment violations, even though as already stipulated, we support the right of people to write whatever they like, to publish it, share it, whatever they want to.”

Opponents said they supported libraries and used them, but they need to be a safe place for children.

“What we want is for the sexualization and grooming of all children to stop once and for all, permanently,” said Phil Reynolds, another leader in the effort. “And it can start here tonight with you supporting us in our efforts to protect our children.”

Still others warned that parents aren’t always present or able to monitor what their children are reading. After many of their speeches, the founders of the Concerned Citizens of Meridian warned: “We will not be silenced. Concerned Citizens of Meridian are watching.”

Concerns over library materials have escalated in recent months in Idaho and throughout the country.

The American Library Association said in an April news release that library staffs faced an “unprecedented number of attempts to ban books.” The books that were most targeted were those about Black or LGBTQ people, the organization said.

The Idaho Legislature took up a bill during the session that would have held libraries liable for distributing “harmful” materials to minors. That proposed law did not receive a hearing in the Senate, but legislators announced the creation of working groups to study children’s access to “harmful” materials in libraries.

A few months after the session ended, the Nampa School District’s board voted to remove a list of nearly two dozen books from its libraries. The decision was made before the district completed a review process that involved forming committees to study each book.

The Meridian Library District has a formal process for challenging specific books. People can submit requests for reconsideration, which are reviewed by library staff. If the challenger disagrees with the decision, they can appeal the decision to the library’s board.

In her eight years as board chair, Larsen said that has never happened.

Larsen said she understands the concerns many expressed throughout the meeting and the desire to monitor what kids are reading.

“I get that. I’m a parent myself,” she told the Idaho Statesman after the meeting.

The library has a number of tools that enable parents to “keep an eye” on what their kids are checking out, Larsen said, and library staff members are happy to help families.

“It’s troubling when groups claim that they’re interested in protecting children, but what they’re doing — what they’re trying to do — is decide for every family what’s appropriate,” she said. “I’m fully confident in Meridian families that they can decide that for themselves.”

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