What's at stake?
The supervisor insists the new committee won't have the power to ban books, but other leaders called it a slippery slope.
The Fresno County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday approved a resolution to create a review committee for children’s books in county libraries.
The new committee will be tasked with removing books — containing information about sexual orientation and gender identity — from the children’s sections to be placed elsewhere in the library.
The resolution passed with a 3-2 vote, largely because of last-minute amendments by its author, Supervisor Steve Brandau, after criticism on the dais from fellow Supervisor Buddy Mendes. As a formality, the resolution, which was also supported by Supervisor Nathan Magsig, will be confirmed with another vote on a consent agenda item at a future meeting.
Supervisor Brian Pacheco voted against the resolution, calling a review committee on books a slippery slope. Supervisor Sal Quintero also voted against the resolution after confirming with Interim County Librarian Sally Gomez at the Tuesday meeting that the Fresno County Public Library already has a book reconsideration request procedure for patrons who object to anything in its catalog.
The review committee on children’s books would not have the power to remove or ban books from Fresno County’s libraries. However, exactly where the books would go after being removed from library children’s sections is yet to be decided. County staff will now begin drafting the bylaws and guidelines of the review committee following Tuesday’s vote.
Brandau stressed that his proposal does not target any single community — including the LGBTQ community — despite using “controversial and complex gender questions” as part of the basis to shift books away from children’s sections in Fresno County libraries, along with anything else the review committee could deem objectionable.
“I went to great lengths to make sure that I personally wasn’t targeting them,” Brandau told Fresnoland in a Monday afternoon phone call. When asked if he spoke with any LGBTQ advocacy organizations in Fresno County, he acknowledged he hadn’t.
He said he did speak with a handful of LGBTQ individuals in Fresno County, but acknowledged they didn’t leave those conversations content with his proposal.
Brandau also said he hadn’t met or requested to meet with any librarians at the Fresno County Public Library. He did point to meeting with former county librarian Raman Bath twice in the last four months. Bath resigned from his role on Oct. 30, but it had nothing to do with the resolution on children’s books, Brandau said at a Nov. 2 news conference.
Brandau added that he wanted to respect a chain of command, which consisted of sending inquiries to County Administrative Officer Paul Nerland, who would then find answers for him from library management. He also pushed back against questions about the rigor of his research and engagement with the county library, adding that his proposal will beef up current library procedures.
Could Brandau’s resolution violate the First Amendment?
Besides Brandau’s proposal leaving LGBTQ community members feeling targeted and unheard, concerns over whether this new proposal violates the First Amendment have also entered the fray.
On Monday, the ACLU of Northern California, the First Amendment Coalition, the Freedom to Read Foundation and PEN America sent a letter to the Fresno County Board of Supervisors calling for the resolution to be rejected.
The letter spelled out a range of objections to Brandau’s proposal, noting that the First Amendment protects the public’s right to receive information in public libraries without government interference; speech does not lose its Constitutional protections simply because of alleged sexual or controversial content; the proposal would have a disparate impact on books about gender identity, sexual orientation and reproductive health.
“He is creating a resolution that will censor and restrict access to books,” said Chessie Thacher, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU. “Courts across the country have found that restricting access to books is a form of censorship and legally is not a different question than book banning or book censoring.”
She added that the resolution does not empower parents in Fresno County, rather it empowers a select group of unelected, hand-picked members of a committee to have an outsized influence to make major decisions that impact Fresno County’s 34 library branches.
Rules and procedures already in place
The Board of Supervisors chambers on Tuesday was filled with community members, such that more members of the public were kept from entering the Fresno County Hall of Records building in downtown Fresno, many of whom gathered to speak out on Brandau’s proposal.
Quintero, the board’s chair, limited public comment on the matter to 20 minutes, after holding up a thick wad of printed correspondence the board received on Brandau’s resolution. Some of the people who spoke during public comment were in support of Brandau’s proposal, but most were against it.
“When challenged at his press conference the other day, that gender identity is not sexual or controversial, Supervisor Brandau responded: ‘That’s your opinion’ — and that is exactly the point,” said Michelle Gordon, who worked at Fresno County’s libraries for nine years until she resigned in September. “What you deem as inappropriate — it is not up to you to decide for me; it is not up to a committee.”
After the Tuesday vote, Gordon told Fresnoland that she resigned from her county library role as Collection Development Manager because of what she said was county officials’ refusal to understand existing rules and procedures at the library.
“Raman even offered me to Supervisor Brandau for a sit-down meeting so that I can actually explain the processes that the library has and he declined,” Gordon said. “The board also declined presentations from the library about our processes and the safeguards that are already in place for these kinds of things. They didn’t want any information from us.”
Some of those rules include how kids under 13 need parental approval to get a library card, and kids under 8 years of age are not allowed to be unaccompanied inside Fresno County’s libraries. Up until 2019, that extended to all kids 12 or younger.
Additionally, the library also already has a process for book reconsideration requests — Gordon knows because she was solely in charge of it since 2020.
Brandau denied any knowledge of a proposed meeting with Gordon, and said either a request was never made, or his staff did not make him aware of any request.
“He’s trying to put processes in place with no understanding of what actually happens when it comes to selecting books and displaying books and putting books on the shelves,” Gordon said. “I’m not sure how you can justify his plan when he doesn’t have the information about how the library works.”
She added that Brandau’s resolution would give power to a group of people who do not have the same training and professional qualifications that librarians have — which includes having a master’s degree in library and information science.
She added that her resignation came after reading the writing on the wall, and realizing that she would not be able to continue in her role at the library under Fresno County officials waging what she sees as a political fight over books.