- This story has been updated as of 8:40 p.m., March 16
A newly created policy at Keene Memorial Library that allowed parents of children ages 11 and younger to request the relocation of offensive books has come to an end after only two days.
On Tuesday night, March 14, after more than two hours of passionate debate, the Fremont City Council voted 5-3 to rescind the new policy that was approved on Feb. 14 and went into effect on Monday, March 13.
The decision came after several hours of public comment and lengthy statements from several members of the eight-person city council. The debate over the policy became very passionate at times, with several speakers crying and others loudly chiding the council and Mayor Joey Spellerberg.
Ward 4 Council Member Sally Ganem had requested the reconsideration of the Feb. 14 approval of the policy on the agenda for the March 14, utilizing a caveat in the city’s Municipal Code that allows a council member who voted in favor of an issue to request it be revisited within three meetings from original approval.
On Tuesday, Ganem spoke about her reservations that had developed during the past month about the new library policy, which was theorized by Ward 1 Council Member Paul Von Behren as a way to come to a compromise between the two warring factions in the raging debate over sexual education and LGBTQ-themed books in the city library.
Saying that the “intent was good” in regard to Von Behren’s policy, Ganem proceeded to detail her reasons for asking to reconsider the new policy, among them the fact it lacked an appeals process for book relocations.
“In my mind, the book that was first brought forward (by Sandra Murray) was misplaced. We all make mistakes,” Ganem said of the tome “Sex is a Funny Word,” the first book that ignited the current controversy.
“There is a larger issue I see. (The new policy) was the only item on the agenda (on Feb. 14) with no public input and no staff input,” Ganem added. “When I read (the policy), many questions came to mind. There is absolutely no appeals process for those who object. The idea was to make it simple again. In our zest to make it simple, we have made it more of a misunderstanding.”
City Council President Mark Jensen, who has robustly defended the library staff and supported not censoring or banning any books, said, “There are a lot of things that need to be cleaned up about this.”
The council then voted 7-1 to reconsider the Feb. 14 decision, with Von Behren voting no. That decision then opened the flood gates of public comment, which saw speaker after speaker address both the policy as well as the issue of what books should be present in the city’s library.
Debate over policy passionate, lengthy
The public comment and associated statements from the city council lasted more than two hours, and included speeches from many residents who have been vocal during the last three months the issue has raged in the community. For the first time since the issue arose in late December, three library staff employees spoke during a meeting about books and policies.
Keene Memorial Library Advisory Board President Linda McLain addressed the policy in an emotional statement during which she paused several times to wipe away tears, telling those in attendance she had, “lost a lot of sleep and did not want to be on the front page of the Fremont Tribune.”
“I was here on (Feb. 14) and, honestly, I was shocked. I was blindsided by (Von Behren’s) request. There had been no input from (library) staff,” McClain said of the policy approved in mid-February. “If I’d been able to speak on (Feb. 14), I would have said, ‘tap the brakes.’ I felt like we needed to step back and breathe and have a group figure this out. It has been really disappointing to me. It doesn’t feel good to be ignored.”
McClain also emphatically defended the library staff and Library Director Laura England-Biggs, telling the council that accusations of “sexualizing of children,” were not happening and would never happen at the library in any manner.
Emily Nimsakont, past president of the Nebraska Library Association Board of Directors, also spoke during the public comment, stating that the NLA vehemently opposed the new policy allowing for the relocation of controversial books.
Claiming the policy was an attack on intellectual freedom and that it enabled censorship, Nimsakont urged the council to rescind the policy immediately.
One local mother who identified herself as Gentry Klein spoke to the council, requesting that the policy be kept in place while also decrying what she alleged were sexually explicit books in the library that were not appropriate for children.
“Sexually explicit and obscene books have no place in the library,” Klein said, while listing several claims about the contents of the book, “This Book is Gay.”
Klein also said the Nebraska Library Association was a political organization with goals to, “intimidate and gas light the council,” and using “buzzwords” to misconstrue the issue.
Local resident Scott Preston, who had raised eyebrows and caused blushed faces in past meetings while reading extremely sexually explicit passages from books found in the library, spoke again — this time not delving into the words he had said before.
“You can relax, I’m not going to read any book excerpts,” Preston began, adding he supported the new policy created by Von Behren.
“This amendment does not remove any books from the library, it simply means kids may not discover them on their own,” Preston added. “As a society, we censor things all the time. And for the record, I am not a member of Sandra Murray’s family.”
Preston’s comment referred to local business owner and grandmother Sandra Murray, who with her daughter — Brianna Kindler — initiated the current debate over books. Murray and Kindler spoke during a Dec. 27 meeting of the city council, objecting to a book titled “Sex is a Funny Word” as well as four other LGBTQ-themed books. The duo demanded the books be removed from the library, saying in their opinion the content was akin to child pornography and was allegedly “grooming” children.
As the book debate has unfolded since that meeting, Murray has sought the total removal of two books from the city library — being rejected in both instances — and enlisted multiple members of her family to contest books and complain at city council meetings.
Sandra Murray and her daughter Kelley Garay were present at the meeting, however neither spoke during public comments on the issue.
Other Murray family members who have also protested books, including Murray’s husband, a second daughter, her son and two sons-in-law, were also absent on Tuesday based on multiple reviews of the audience by the Tribune.
Former Fremont Public Schools high school librarian Ray Meister also spoke during the meeting, reiterating comments he has made at past meetings, that sexual education and LGBTQ books have a place in libraries, but there needs to be “discernment” due to content that could be explicit and not age appropriate.
“I am concerned about what is happening in our community. I am concerned for you as a council. I am concerned for the library. I am concerned for the library board,” Meister said while visibly shaking. “This is just the tip of the iceberg. It isn’t going to go over easy even if you drop the amendment.”
As Meister continued to speak, the mayor reminded him multiple times that his allotted time was over and he should stop talking. Meister angrily retorted that other speakers had gotten longer time to talk before he walked back to his seat.
An hour after his comments, Meister interrupted another speaker, yelling at Spellerberg and asking to speak again, stating that he felt, “outnumbered.”
Decision to rescind policy confusing before OK’d
Following the public comment, and several minutes of discussion with City Attorney Travis Jacott on what actually the council was going to vote on, the council debated the issue with Von Behren, Glen Ellis, Lori Lathrop, Ganem, Jensen and James Vaughan all making comments about the policy and book debate.
Ellis, who represents Ward 2, said he is uncomfortable allowing his children to go to the library without supervision due to what he said was “unbalanced” content in the library. He also suggested creating a task force.
“The solution is to come up with a task force to make modifications to the (materials) selection process,” Ellis suggested. “
Vaughan disputed Ellis’ comments, noting that he has full confidence in the library content and he and his wife take their children to the city library for learning. He also said the issue lies with “parental responsibility.”
Jensen also contested Ellis’ comments about “balance,” stating that there are more than 8,000 books or materials in the children’s section of the library and less than 1% are of sexual education or LGBTQ themes or content.
“You say the library isn’t balanced? I say it is,” Jensen responded.
Lathrop kept her comments brief, saying, “if you don’t like the books, don’t check them out.”
Von Behren then addressed the scrutiny of his policy, noting that in his opinion three main questions existed about the library and books present in it: is there a defined process for materials selection; is there a screening process for displays of materials and books; and is there a screening process for materials as to where they are placed in the library’s assorted sections.
“We don’t have a consistent, coherent method of putting those books on display,” Von Behren noted.
Ganem proposed a new version of the policy, which would include retaining Von Behren’s original policy details, but adding in a new section to it that would allow for the book relocation requests to be appealed similar to the current policy in place.
That proposal from Ganem was never voted on, though, as Jensen made his own motion to rescind the policy entirely. But, that motion was not voted on per advice from City Attorney Travis Jacott.
Following the Ganem and Jensen motions, confusion then arose about what was being voted on. After several minutes of explanations and questions, the council re-voted on the original Feb. 14 motion made by Von Behren to add the policy.
In the reconsideration of Von Behren's Feb. 14 motion, Ellis seconded it. The council then voted 6-2 to reject the policy from Feb. 14 with Von Behren and Ellis voting to keep the policy.
After the policy was rescinded, the entire library policy manual needed to be re-voted on according to Jacott. That motion to approve the library policy manual without Von Behren's policy was made by Jense and seconded of by Vaughan. The council voted 5-3 to re-approve the library policy manual without Von Behren's amendment. The no votes were from Von Behren, Ellis and new council member Tad Dinkins.
Following the vote, McClain said in a brief interview that the decision meant the new policy — which had gone into effect on Monday, March 13 — was now “completely ended.” That change was also confirmed by City Attorney Travis Jacott, who said the Feb. 14 decision was now revoked and not included in the library’s policy manual.
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