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WASILLA — About 50 people showed up at Monday's Wasilla City Council meeting following a high-profile public debate about the placement of a controversial sex education book in the Wasilla Public Library.
The topic wasn't on the council's agenda, but that didn't stop people from expressing their opinions during the meeting's open public comment period.
After 10-year-old Isaac Campbell pulled a rainbow-colored book called “This Book Is Gay” off of the shelf in September, his mother Vanessa Campbell was shocked to find it contained frank drawings and descriptions of gay sex acts inside. She took the matter up with librarian KJ Martin-Albright, who found the book was appropriately shelved.
When Campbell appealed Martin-Albright’s ruling, she was invited to a three-member review committee convened to discuss the matter. However, when an unexpectedly large number of people showed up to the meeting last Thursday, librarians and acting mayor Archie Giddings barred about 15 people from attending — which sparked the call for people to speak out at the council meeting.
The library did not violate state open records law according to city attorney Leslie Need, who said the meeting falls under Alaska statues allowing an exemption for “a governmental body performing a judicial or quasi-judicial function when holding a meeting solely to make a decision in an adjudicatory proceeding.”
“If it’s specifically for a review of an appeal for a position like we have here, then they wouldn’t be subject to the Open Meetings Act Requirement,” she said.
Parents and children showed up in droves Monday, requiring city officials to use extra chairs, and requiring some people to stand in the back of the room and in the vestibule. Some quoted the Declaration of Independence. Others compared the book — which a reviewer for the School Library Journal called a “witty, no-holds-barred look at the LGBTQ (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Queer) experience” — to pornography, and the librarians who defended it to pedophiles.
“I can’t imagine what kind of person would order that material and want to make it readily available for children,” said Emily Hardy. “That is straight-up pedophile kind of behavior.”
Those sorts of charged words drew fierce criticism from Friends of the Library president Jeanne Troshynski, who spoke after a flood of parents had left the room.
“I really resent the character assassination of Kathy Martin-Albright tonight,” she said. “I believe that it is irresponsible to not stop that kind of comment. I really appreciate that you listen to everybody’s comments and you’re kind and respectful. I think that’s important, but I think you need to support your staff, too. We always remind people in meetings that I chair that any character assassination on any staff is not acceptable. Period. End of story. That’s not ok. In particular, I feel strongly about that because KJ (Martin-Albright) has a tremendous character and cares tremendously about this community and children and follows the policy as it is outlined.”
City council member Brandon Wall and mayor Bert Cottle joined Troshynksi in praising Albright-Martin’s reputation and enthusiasm for kids.
Concerned parents — some of whom questioned why the book was only available at the Wasilla Public Library — were ill-informed, Troshynksi said.
“Why is the book only in our library?” she said. “Because we’re part of a statewide library consortium. A library here buys a book, it’s accessible to every single library in the state. So it’s kind of a silly question from a mob of people who have a little information and are upset about one thing.”
Troshynski also criticized the Frontiersman's coverage of the issue in a front-page story about the issue on Sunday.
“The newspaper does not present all facts,” she said.
Some commenters, like Dan Miles, focused their criticism on the appeals process, saying librarians were able to effectively choose the people reviewing their appeal.
“It allows them the ability to stack the deck, and it doesn’t feel to me like it’s a fair process,” he said.
Miles asked for a more public process. He and others called for a review of a planned policy — which Albright said last week is a "documented best practice" for libraries nationwide — that would blend juvenile and adult nonfiction into a single category when the city's new $15 million library opens next year.
Some speakers struggled to balance the need to express what they found so objectionable about the book with the need to self-censor in a public forum with some children present.
For example, Ryan Ponder recited a litany of phrases he found offensive after warning the audience that sensitive people should leave. After a handful of children were led out of the room, Ponder read aloud:
“’As with handjobs and breakfast eggs, all men like their blowjobs differently,’” he read.
Ponder said he didn’t oppose profanity. When asked about works of profane classic literature, like “Madame Bovary” or “Lady Chatterly’s Lover,” he said they weren’t available in the kids section.
“I would doubt that ‘Madame Bovary’ is in the juvenile section,” he said.
He dismissed any assertion that the presence of anatomically correct pictures in the book played a role in the discussion.
“I think it comes down to the definition of ‘sexually explicit,’” he said. “I don’t think that we’re dividing hairs when we look at the definition of sexually explicit. This is educational. Academia does not refer to the penis as the 'cock.' I’m sorry, let me qualify that statement. Reputable academia doesn’t qualify semen as 'cum.' 'Dick' for penis. Oral sex being referred to as 'blow job.' It’s not put forth in that way.”
“Reasonable people,” define what's reputable, Ponder said.
The evening also featured several younger speakers. Gabe Lund, 12, said he was moved to comment because of other adult speakers in the audience. He hadn’t read the book, but said he found what he'd heard about it distasteful.
“That should be recognized,” he said. “I have younger brothers. I haven’t even seen it, and it shouldn’t be seen by anything 18 or under.”
Like adult readers, Gabe called for a greater role for the public.
“This is something that needs to be reviewed,” he said. “Because they really need to set a policy where people need to be able to say, ‘This book is okay.’ If it’s bad enough, maybe they should vote.”
Some city council members said they would consider revising the library review policy. Others generally said they would wait for the review process to finish before deciding precisely how to change the process.
Troshynski was skeptical revising the process would satisfy anyone.
"Of course, anyone that’s unhappy with the reconsideration doesn’t ever like whatever the results are or the policy is,” she said.
She said removing the book from the library would be a mistake.
“I don’t know, the book doesn’t sound that great to me, but it’s a public library,” she said. “And yes, we are censoring if we kick the book out.”
Contact reporter Brian O’Connor at 352-2270, email@example.com, or on Twitter @reporterbriano.