We commend The Enterprise for its excellent July 19 editorial about the retroactive financial penalty imposed on the St. Mary’s County Library by the county commissioners. The editorial rightly pointed out that not only did the commissioners completely disregard the First Amendment implications of their decision, the move was just bad policy.
In a Facebook post, Del. Brian Crosby (D-St. Mary’s) noted that the punishment of the library may constitute a violation of COMAR 23-401, which requires that the county library be “free from political influence.” Further, the Maryland attorney general’s office has contacted our county administrator and the BOCC to discuss the legality of the decision.
The commissioners made clear in their July 16 meeting the fee was retaliation against the library for the June 23 drag queen story hour sponsored by an outside group but held in one of the library’s public meeting rooms. Commissioner Mike Hewitt (R) pressed the library to “lower the controversy,” “do things that allow you to look at what content is being put out there” and “be sensitive to your community.”
Commissioner Todd Morgan (R) commented about the public feedback he received over the concern “about the sources and uses of what goes on in the library.” This public feedback came from a vocal minority of community members who routinely protest against anything LGBTQ related.
Government censorship based on content is exactly what the free speech clause of the First Amendment protects against. As library board president Carolyn Guy noted, the library is prohibited from restricting content unless it is illegal or unsafe.
The story hour did not fall under either of those categories.
In fact, the stories featured messages of diversity, inclusivity and acceptance.
The most disheartening comments of the meeting came from Commissioner Eric Colvin (R). After library director Michael Blackwell explained how he felt like a football being tossed between opposing groups, Colvin suggested that “if you continue to be used as a football, maybe … take a look at no more public meeting use of the rooms.” As Blackwell noted, library meeting rooms were reserved more than 4,600 times in the past fiscal year. With public meeting space already being scarce in this county, Colvin seeks to stonewall a valuable community resource.
Colvin later proffered that the library might restrict uses that impede library operations. Blackwell pointed out that library policy already does.
The story event did not affect the library, but the reactionary anti-LGBTQ protest did.
Commissioner John O’Connor (R), who made the motion to retroactively charge the library, responded, “it’s cause and effect.” O’Connor would have the library censor events based not just on their content, but on the possibility of protest.
Again, the library is not and should not be in the business of deciding which events might make someone uncomfortable.
O’Connor, Colvin and Morgan voted in favor of charging the library for services provided by the sheriff’s office. To our knowledge, this is the first time that’s been done in our county.
This punishment is meant to influence the library board into making certain decisions about meeting room use, and it’s an attempt at chilling free speech.
That’s a dangerous precedent to set.
Hewitt and Morgan both stated the commissioners would consider library meeting room use in future funding decisions.
This type of threat is the political influence COMAR 23-401 is designed to prevent.
We certainly hope the commissioners figure that out before they cut the library’s budget and our community suffers as a consequence.