So apparently, in St. Mary’s County these days, free speech is not free.
It costs exactly $2,439.48.
But you don’t pay up front. You get penalized after the fact.
That’s the precise amount the county commissioners voted Tuesday to yank from the St. Mary’s County Library system’s budget to reimburse the St. Mary’s County Sheriff’s Office for the security services the agency provided for the controversial June 23 drag queen story hour event at the Lexington Park branch. And that money has already been moved, according to the law enforcement agency.
When did the sheriff’s office become a private security force? Don’t they already get paid by our tax dollars? Why should the library have to foot the bill?
As it turned out, the deputies were very much needed at the story hour event four weeks ago. That’s because a man was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct, disturbing the peace, failure to obey a reasonable/lawful order, resisting arrest and trespassing. He allegedly barged into the library and reportedly upset some of the children.
Commissioner John O’Connor (R) spearheaded the idea of charging the library system that money, with third-termer Commissioner Todd Morgan (R) and freshman Commissioner Eric Colvin (R) following in lockstep. Only Commissioner Mike Hewitt (R) voted against it, although during the meeting he did tell library officials, “Your board remains invisible when these conversations come up. … Look at your policies and do things that allow you to avoid people being arrested in our libraries. Do things that allow you to look at what content’s being put out there.” Commissioner President Randy Guy (R) was seemingly absent in voicing his opinion on the vote.
So what is the library being told? Avoid touchy subjects — subjects clearly protected by the First Amendment — because they are inconvenient?
And Morgan told Carolyn Guy, the library board of trustees president, “We’re concerned tremendously about your lack of transparency. … To you guys, there’s no public accountability.” What’s more accountable than her and Michael Blackwell, the library director, getting unfairly dressed down by the commissioners in a public meeting?
The commissioners as a group are dead wrong here. Essentially fining Blackwell and the county’s library board is unfair and an overreaction. The commissioners need to back off.
The people who organized and sponsored the story hour in June — the nonprofit Southern Maryland Secular Humanists and the LGBTQ-oriented PFLAG of Leonardtown — paid for the use of the room, just as many others in this community continue to do.
So what’s the problem? Is it because one event out of the more than 4,600 annual group uses of a St. Mary’s public library made someone uncomfortable?
Of course, the Lexington Park library has been a powder keg of controversy for a couple of years now. In the spring of 2017, the secular humanist group hosted a sex ed class for teenagers there. And there was backlash from some, who felt the class and its instructor (who is gay) were inappropriate. As it turned out, a nationally known speaker who advocates sexual abstinence by teens was brought to the library the week before the sex ed class.
Later that year, the Lexington Park branch (as well as the one in Charlotte Hall) hosted a “banned books” event as part of a national program criticizing needless censorship. Some of the books were even covered in brown paper bags as a tongue-in-cheek way of emphasizing the point. But as it turned out, not everybody grasped the concept of satire. One of the books was directed at teen and tween girls regarding feminine hygiene and other subjects. Another of the titles was the American coming-of-age classic novel “The Catcher in the Rye.” Subversive stuff, clearly.
In all three of those library events, there have been common threads. The rooms were rented legally and appropriately by a library system that promotes free speech, and opposing viewpoints were given their space and their say. Just as importantly — as we have said in this space all along — no one was forcing anybody to bring their children to the sex ed class. Or the banned book display. Or the drag queen story hour. If you don’t like what’s being offered, stay home. And stop parenting other people’s children.
Last year the commissioners appropriated $2.78 million for the library, according to the 2019 budget. The library should keep every dime of that money to use as it sees fit. It should not be penalized $2,439.48 because the commissioners were made skittish by an event that did nothing more than promote free speech.