Manufactured controversy

Studying the timeline of events that led to protests at the library and governmental meetings are, from left, Kerr County Judge Rob Kelly and Kerrville Mayor Judy Eychner.

Kerr County Judge Rob Kelly and Mayor Judy Eychner have spent several days and many hours trying to decipher the series of events that led to public outrage by a handful of citizens over a display in the Butt-Holdsworth Memorial Library created in recognition of “Banned Books Week” and both have determined misinformation fueled the controversy that began on Sept. 23.

Banned Books Week is recognized by libraries across the nation and was held Sept. 18-24 to highlight books that have been challenged by individuals as being controversial, while also protected by law, with the event meant to be educational.

The list of “banned books” provided by the Americal Library Association for this year’s event prompted outrage by conservative national news media giant Fox News on Sept. 22, who singled out three different titles that deal with gender identity, homosexuality and sexuality. The next day, Friday, Sept. 23, local conservative radio host and Precinct 1 Kerr County Commissioner Harley Belew followed suit, chastising the City of Kerrville for hosting such books at the local library.

Within hours, several protesters arrived at the library with signs in hand. Likewise, many arrived at the scene to show support for the library and the staff.

Many of the protesters and supporters attended the Kerr County Commissioners Court meeting Monday morning (Sept. 26) to voice their outrage over the books or support of the library. On Sept. 27, the group gathered at the Kerrville City Council meeting to address the issue after staff said they proactively added the topic on the council agenda.

One of those who signed up to speak was Belew, who threatened to terminate an interlocal agreement between the City of Kerrville and Kerr County which trades off library services for county residents for animal control services within the city limits.

“I’m Harley David Belew, County Commissioner Precinct 1,” Belew said as he came to the microphone in council chambers. “Have you all seen the pictures? Were you shocked? I know I was. I know it was child pornography. I looked it up.”

Belew said that the library “has broken the law.”

“Here’s the bottom line, we have a quid pro quo agreement with the City of Kerrville, the County of Kerr does, to take care of animal control, the city takes care of the library,” Belew said. “That is being jeopardized here. I feel like I’m being put in a position to subsidize pornography. If this is the hill you want to die on, you’re putting it at risk … you’re putting that agreement at risk and I speak for several on the commission (Commissioners’ Court).”

As he promised he would do, Kelly immedately contacted Eychner to investigate the accusations laid out by many in multiple public forums.

“I approached the mayor, as I said I would do from the bench, to get the actual facts,” Kelly said. “I suspected, and I think it has been confirmed, that there was some misinformation. She shared with me information that she obtained from library staff and I think we have a comprehensive understanding of how everything was handled and what went on.”

Eychner said the library has been celebrating Banned Books Week for 10 years.

“And, one of the books that was on the Banned Books Week table has been on that table since 2016,” Eychner said. “We’ve never had a challenge before.”

More importantly, Eychner said, the most controversial book included in the display, entitled “Gender Queer,” includes a graphic image, and was displayed inside a closed bird cage initially and then checked out of the library and removed from the display on Tuesday morning (Sept. 20).

“It never went back on the table again,” Eychner said.

The display was completed late Saturday, Sept. 17, she said, so the book was publicly displayed inside the closed bird cage for less than 20 business hours.

“There were three controversial books that I asked her to check out,” Kelly said. “One was ‘Gender Queer’ that has the graphic images in it. That’s the main one and it was in the cage until it was checked out by a staff member, so no one saw that book on that table. If they had the picture of the image in question, they got it from somewhere else. They did not get it off that table. That was what was most important to me.”

Kelly said his investigation revealed that two citizens voiced concerns over the “Banned Books Week” event during the time period.

“It wasn’t until they brought publicity to this that anyone went over to look at it,” Kelly said.

Kelly said the other two books that were questioned were titled “Two Boys Kissing,” and “Sex is a Funny Word” were also checked out by librarians and removed from the display table.

The ALA, Eychner said, is a professional organization that provides support to libraries around the nation.

“The Library Board (City of Kerrville’s Library Advisory Board) has policies that they follow and it has to do with all of their books,” Eychner said. “They serve the entire community with free and open access. They provide comprehensive collections for diverse viewpoints and provide materials for all ages and reading levels, but the responsibility for children’s use rests with parents, guardians and caregivers.”

More importantly, Eychner said, advisory board policy states that “inclusion of materials in the library does not constitute or imply agreement with or approval of the materials by the library, city or the county.”

Kelly pointed out that the three books in question are all coded for adult use only and must be checked out by an adult.

“No one, or no entity, says these are ‘acceptable’ books … whatever acceptable is to different people,” Eychner said. “The library and the library staff have an obligation, a duty, to uphold the tenants of the Library Bill of Rights, a policy of seven basic items that must be adhered to.”

Kelly said he feels the matter has been politicized.

“I understand that people want to protect their children, and that is their right,” Eychner said. “This is just a sign  of the times.”

“But they publicized these pictures and circulated them,” Kelly said.

Kelly also addressed Belew’s threat.

“Anything I say, I am saying in my individual capacity, but I do not speak for the court,” Kelly said. “At this point, this issue has not gone before the court and it is my reccomendation that it should not be brought before the court. We renewed the contract a couple of weeks ago for another year. There would be a lot of chaos if that agreement were terminated and it would be detrimental to all concerned and would be especially detrimental to the animals. There is nothing to be gained from it (terminating the agreement) other than some sort of political bragging rights.”

Kelly said his investigation on behalf of the county was to determine what alleged exposure the public had to materials in question.

“It was virtually none,” Kelly said. “The way it was sensationalized in Commissioners’ Court made it sound like it was huge controversy. It wasn’t controversial at all until they made it controversial, and they were posting things on Facebook that they couldn’t have even gotten out of these books because they were checked out. I think this whole thing was orchestrated.”

Eychner said she regrets that the matter has become front page news and said library staff has created a system to be used in the future during Banned Books Week that will eliminate concern, saying that photographs of the covers of the books will now be displayed, rather than the books themselves.

With regard to Belew’s accusation that the library has broken the law with regard to child pornography, Eychner emphatically disagreed and said that she does not believe library staff deserved to be treated so badly by the protesting citizens.

“Some of the things they said, and I’m a lawyer, are defamatory,” Kelly said. “There are legal rights that have been trampled on and there could be legal redress.”

Eychner said the Butt-Holdsworth Memorial Library is accredited by the Texas State Library & Archives Commission and the Texas Administrative Code.

(1) comment

gene shelton

Thank you for this article. I see that our conspiracy theorist in chief managed to get his nose stuck into it also.

One think that struck me from reading the letters to the Daily Times is the number of child psychology experts we have here, in addition to all the constitutional experts. Gene

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