City takes no action on library policy proposals pending further review


Editor's note: This story has been updated and replaced by the following story: http://hillcountrynews.com/stories/city-takes-no-action-on-library-policy-proposals-pending-further-review,80547?

After hearing the results of a community survey on library programming followed by a presentation on proposed changes to the room rental and programming policies, the Leander City Council on Thursday decided to hold off on making any changes until a later date.

Ahead of its July 18 regular meeting, the Leander City Council received letters from several organizations opposed to proposed changes in policies about community room rentals as well as changes to its programming policies.

In a letter from the American Civil Liberties Union, the city was warned that one of the proposed changes – which would have required presenters or hosts of certain events to pay for security costs or see their event cancelled – was unconstitutional.

The National Library Association and the Texas Library Association both sent letters to the council warning that proposed changes could be problematic, and the National Coalition Against Censorship wrote a letter saying the library’s recent abrupt cancellation of a transgender comic book author’s book presentation was discriminatory.

“It certainly isn’t our intention to discriminate against any viewpoints,” said Leander public spokesperson Mike Neu.

Neu said there had been communication issues between city staff and library staff regarding the recent cancellations, and those communication issues resulted in the cancellation of noted comic author Lilah Sturges’ presentation last week.

“We failed to have the discussion with library staff about what the nature of some the events involved,” Neu said. “It wasn’t brought up initially as one of the events we were considering, so it was an issue that we felt needed to be addressed immediately as soon as we learned about it.”

Neu presented some results of the survey conducted by the city, in which survey respondents were asked what types of events they were interested in seeing at the library. The information was sought after the cancellation of a planned Drag Queen Story Time event, which later morphed into a Pride Festival and Story Time event. 

Neu provided council members a written summary of some of the feedback from survey respondents, noting that the majority of the comments were related in some way to the controversial June events and subsequent cancellation of other events.

However, the council never heard the actual percentage of survey respondents who were in support of, or in opposition to, a Drag Queen Story Time or similar event. No council member asked Neu about the number of respondents in support of or against such events, or the percentage of survey responses on either side of the issue, from the dais. 

Also during the council meeting, Parks and Recreation Director Mark Tummons presented a number of possible changes to the library's policies. Some involved restrictions on photographing or videotaping library staff or visitors, and others involved changes to programming and room rentals policies. 

After some discussion between council members, in which Council Member Jason Shaw said that while he has personal, faith-based issues with the nature of some of the library’s events, he also believes that those groups have the right to use the library just as much as anyone else.

Leander Police Chief Greg Minton told council members that he estimates the city spent about $20,000 for police protection at the June 15 Pride Festival and Story Time event that drew protesters from around the country. The costs were incurred because the city determined that threats made on social media posed enough risk to warrant a police presence at the event. The city also decided to close the library to the public on that day.

Under one of the proposed changes, Open Cathedral Church – which rented the library’s community room to host the event – would have been responsible for paying the city’s estimated costs, in advance, or have their event cancelled.

Council Member Christine Sederquist said such a policy was tantamount to discrimination, in that it would unfairly target the host or presenter of any event the library determined to be ‘controversial’ for the costs of protection when another group was responsible for making the threats.

The ACLU, the National Library Association and the Texas Library Association all agreed, and warned that such a policy would be a violation of the First Amendment rights of groups to speak. The groups all said that once a library was open to the public, the city and the library could not discriminate against those with controversial views.

"When libraries open their meeting rooms for use by the public, courts have generally held that the meeting rooms become a designated public forum subject to regulation under the First Amendment," the ALA letter said.

Later in the discussion, Tummons suggested the possibility that the city could convert the rooms for use only by the library staff and the city, saying the library is already short on space. Hill said he would support that change.

Such a move could have the effect of nullifying the ‘public access’ requirements cited by the ACLU and the library association groups.

With the council’s decision to hold off making any changes for now, Neu told the Hill Country News that he will provide clarification on the next steps at a later date.