Attendees at FRL board meeting not allowed to speak; asked to leave

Macon County Commissioner Danny Antoine addressed the Fontana Regional Library Board of Trustees Tuesday afternoon as they announced they would not allow the almost 70 attendees to offer public comments.

Deena C. Bouknight – Contributing Writer

A crowd of almost 70 attempted to attend the Tuesday, March 14, meeting of the Fontana Regional Library (FRL) system’s Board of Trustees at Hudson Library in Highlands. However, Branch Librarian Carlyn Morenus explained that only 50 could occupy the space, due to fire code, so the overflow stood at the meeting room door and among the rows of books at the library. 

While the FRL nor the Macon County Public Library Boards of Trustee meetings historically have not been well attended by the public, a controversy involving books in children’s and teens library sections that include sexually explicit illustrations and text – and  promoted in displays – has attracted an increasing number of concerned citizens ready to discuss varying opinions on the matter.

At the opening of the March 14 meeting, the Board announced that there would be no public comment allowed. This statement elicited remarks from attendees: “If you love children you will let us speak.” “I’m a school teacher; you’re telling me I can’t speak.” “You’re intentionally trying to censor us.” “This is our library; it’s paid for by our taxes – and you’re not going to let us speak on this issue?” 

Attendees pointed out to the Board that they were not informed that no public comment would be allowed. One board member noted that attendees could write down concerns, but no one would be allowed to address the board verbally. 

Macon County Commissioner Danny Antoine addressed the Board: “Is there no public comment on the agenda? Is it your decision that you’re not going to allow public speaking from this point on?” 

A Board member explained that, according to a North Carolina statute, board meetings were not required to hear public comment. The group was further informed that the FRL Board of Trustees had consulted an attorney, who advised them not to allow public comment because of the “disruptive” nature of comments regarding sexually explicit books for children. At that, attendees shouted, “No! No! No!”

Attendees were told by the board that anyone who disrupted the meeting would be directed to leave, and if they did not leave, they could be arrested and be found guilty of a misdemeanor. 

Antoine told attendees that he would be leaving Highlands to attend the 6 p.m. Macon County Commissioner meeting in Franklin and that he would be addressing this issue with the commissioners. 

As attendees got up to leave the meeting, Highlands police chief Andrea Holland, as well as another uniformed police officer, entered the room. Franklin resident Jim Gaston told the Board: “This is more proof that the libraries need to be pulled out of the Fontana system.”

After exiting the meeting room, approximately 30 attendees stayed inside the library to discuss the no-public-comment issue. Diann Catlin, Highlands, said, “This is America. We care about what our children and grandchildren are reading. Many of us are educators. There is no excuse for what they did to us in there today. Shouldn’t people receive constructive criticism so we can protect our children? They can’t just spring ‘no public comment’ on us. We are concerned citizens – not here to be hauled away by the police.”

A few of the meeting attendees who gathered in the library discussed some of the books that have been on display and made available to children and teenagers in the Fontana Regional Library system. Books that they would like to at least be labeled as including sexual content include “Lawn Boy,” “Flamer,” and “Gender Queer.” These books include graphic, detailed content that The Macon County News has chosen not to include, and the latter features illustrations of sex acts.  

The latter book, especially, has been central not just as part of the local library controversy but to a nationwide movement by some parents and educators to pay attention to books offered in public schools and libraries. WORLD magazine’s cover story in the March 11 issue focused groups like Moms for Liberty, a nationwide grassroots campaign to restrict or remove books with graphic sexual content. Headlines like this are common: “How a YA oral-sex scene touched off Texas’ latest culture war,” (Texas Tribune), and “How a Debut Graphic Memoir Became the Most Banned Book in the Country” (The New York Times). 

Catlin said she looked through “Lawn Boy” to become better informed. “No one in the world but an aspiring pedophile would benefit from this book. The main character … and never seemed to get that out of his mind. The book overused the ‘F’ word and the young boy’s mother is having an affair with a boarder who cannot keep his privates private. The library is not a place to put sexual deviancy on display for our most vulnerable, our children.” 

“We only want a neutral library where you don’t have to push an agenda,” said Warren “Bud” Bergstresser, Franklin. “This community will not go away until this board and certain staff choose a unifying direction of neutrality. We all love the library. That is why we will continue to bring awareness to the public by spreading the truth of this issue. We do not want conflict, but the library has purposefully chosen conflict by being tone deaf.” 

“It’s so confusing,” said Wendy McGaha, Franklin. “I saw this book (‘Flamer’) was made available to children, and at the top of it reads ‘This Book Will Save Lives.’  It teaches children to have oral sex with other children. Really?”

Said Marsha Denney, Franklin, “I’ve been to most of the meetings because I don’t approve of the pornographic materials in the Macon County Library for any of the young children or teens and I don’t approve of the displays of books with sexual content. I’m a former educator and I don’t want to see children harmed or confused by reading sexual content.”

“As an educator (36 years), I can speak with authority when it comes to knowing what is best for children,” said Debbie Franken, Highlands. “I am here today to totally and assuredly reject the open display and promotion of sexual and gender confusing books in our libraries. They entice innocent children and teens to pursue these mature themes that they are not developmentally ready to understand. The entire community should come together to make our libraries safe for children.”  

“We have asked for labels on these books,” said Leah Gaston, Franklin. “That solution would facilitate parents who want the books for their children as well as parents who want to protect their children from reading these books.”

“The Collection Development Policy states that library staff have a responsibility to ‘engage in open, continuous two-way communication with library patrons and recognize that individuals have different way of expressing their needs.’ We expect no less from FPL Board members,” she added.

Many of the almost 70 attendees at the 4 p.m. Highlands’ FRL Board of Trustees meeting drove to Franklin to attend the 6 p.m. Macon County Commissioner meeting. The meeting was so packed, in fact, that it was moved from the Commissioners Boardroom in the courthouse to the main courtroom. 

Although the public comment session involved attendees speaking on other issues pertaining to the evening’s agenda, a few spoke about the library controversy, including Jim Gaston – who asked commissioners to “strongly consider not continuing the FPL contract” – and Deni Shepard, of Franklin, who shared: “If the display of sexually explicit materials is openly allowed, you will find yourselves as a government entity in conflict with another part of government. I have had several conversations with our local law enforcement. They have several officers whose sole responsibility is within sexual communications involving minors and/or adults with minors [internet, phone, materials, etc.]. On one hand, our governing system (libraries, schools) allows or encourages [sexual materials], while law enforcement is fighting against it.” 

Antoine addressed fellow commissioners and attendees, explaining that he had been at the Hudson Library meeting. “Can I see a show of hands as to how many of you were at the meeting earlier today in Highlands? I want to apologize to you all for how you were treated. You went to have your voices heard and there is no excuse. The fact that they silenced everyone is completely outrageous. If I read a book like ‘Flamer’ out loud tonight, everyone here would silence me because of its content. But it’s available for kids to read? Hyper sexualizing kids is unacceptable and people will not be silenced. I and others are working super hard on this issue.” 

(As of the late deadline for this article, FPL board members contacted for comment had not responded. More about this issue – and responses by FPL board members will be forthcoming.)