A new appointed panel will soon determine what books go into Huntington Beach’s city libraries with the aim of filtering out any sexual content that children could see. 

The city council’s Tuesday vote comes after civil liberties organizations warn the move could violate First Amendment rights, but supporters say it’s about keeping inappropriate material out of libraries. 

The council’s new 21-person panel will have two jobs: to review any sexual content that could be entering the library and to reexamine existing books in the children and teen’s sections of the library to see if they have any sexual content. 

Councilwoman Gracey Van Der Mark, the architect of the proposal, repeatedly claimed it was not a book ban, and said the goal was for residents to have more control over what books their children are exposed to. 

“Just about every single book you touch is controlled by the government,” Van Der Mark said. “What we are asking is to bring in the community to have some say in that process.”

“This policy will empower parents,” she continued. “Not a single book will be restricted from an adult, not a single book will be removed.”  

Huntington Beach Public Library on Oct. 17, 2023. Credit: DYLAN NICHOLS, Voice of OC

The ACLU, the First Amendment Coalition and the Freedom to Read Foundation issued a joint letter lambasting the proposal, calling it “an unconstitutional censorship regime.” 

“While no one can be forced to read a library book to which they object, no one has the right to subject, through force of government, the entire community to their narrow and arbitrary view of what books are acceptable for minors of any age to read,” reads the letter.

As with many votes this year, the council’s 4-3 vote fell along partisan lines, with the Republican majority supporting the move. 

Mayor Tony Strickland and Councilmembers Casey McKeon, Pat Burns and Van Der Mark approved the item. 

“It’s been said before, it’s not a ban, no it’s not, no matter how much you say it,” Strickland said. “It’s not about removing any of the books, it’s just about recategorizing the books in certain sections to protect children. That’s all we’re talking about.”

Democratic Councilmembers Dan Kalmick, Rhonda Bolton and Natalie Moser voted against the book review panel. 

Kalmick said while there were books that helped to explain sexuality in the children and young adult’s sections, they were intended to be read with a parent and that it wasn’t hard to redirect his child away from a book he felt was inappropriate. 

“When my daughter picked up a book I didn’t feel was appropriate, I explained to her why and put it back on the shelf and redirected her to something I found more appropriate,” Kalmick said. “Problem solved.” 

Bolton asked what it would look like if a wave of “secularist fervor” came in and wanted to ban books on Christianity or considered them offensive. 

“If that was the case, would that be right? Would it be fair? If you were a person who wanted to read a book about religion, how would you feel about that if someone could just come along and say ‘no, those books are dangerous,’” Bolton said. “The founders of our country, I believe, thought about things like that when they framed the First Amendment.”  

It’s unclear how the council-appointed board will actually work, but council members made it clear it would not be set up under the Brown Act, California’s public meeting law that guarantees residents a right to speak on the issues, with Van Der Mark saying it would let them be “more productive.”  

City Attorney Michael Gates also made it clear there would be no appeals process for books that were denied by a majority vote of the board, and said residents “could go to any other number of outlets” for books they really wanted that the library does not have. 

Over 200 people showed up to Tuesday’s meeting that saw over five hours of public comment, along with over 500 pages of emails sent in by people about the proposal. 

Dozens of people spoke in favor of the item – saying it wouldn’t result in the removal of any books from the library, and that it would ensure children weren’t exposed to any inappropriate content. 

“(The library) was so sweet, so innocent, so safe – just to explore the many, many books,” said resident Janet Jacobs. “This is not a book ban. It is simply trying to keep the sexual perversion out of the hands and eyes of our children.” 

While the city council has said they won’t remove any existing content from the library, Van Der Mark said the proposed board could end up stopping future books that were “not a good fit” for the city library in the future. 

“Some may be ok for the adult section, and some might just not be a good fit for our library. Librarians pick and choose books all the time, they don’t adopt every book that’s published,” Van Der Mark said in a Monday interview. “Are librarians book banners? They reject books all the time.” 

Elena Uranga and Rosa Kelly at the Huntington Beach City Council meeting on Oct. 17, 2023. Uranga and Kelly are Huntington Beach residents and members of a book club through the city libraries. Credit: ERIKA TAYLOR, Voice of OC.

Many people said that move would effectively ban books from the library, and questioned what the limits would be on the panel’s power to control what books entered the library. 

“Make no mistake, this is definitely an effort to ban books that a minority of students dislike,” said commenter Diane Bentley. “What will be the criteria used for evaluating books?” 

The precise criteria was never stated during the city council meeting, but the council’s approved resolution said it would be limited to “books and other materials containing any sexual writings, sexual references, explicit sexual images, and any other sexual content.” 

State Senator Dave Min came out to the meeting as well to criticize the proposed policy, saying there was no way for the panel to adequately review the thousands of books added to the city library every year. 

“I worry this will lead to a bottleneck that impedes the procurement of new books,” Min said. “We’ve politicized libraries. This whole debate makes me very sad.” 

During public comment, Ocean View School District board member Gina Clayton-Tarvin likened the move to communism. 

“It is reminiscent of Chairman Mao-style communist book review panels.”

Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at nbiesiada@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.


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