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Members of the public sit and listen to public commentary at the Nebraska Library Commission meeting on Thursday. Ruth Bailey/Nebraska News Service.

People gathered at the Nebraska Library Commission’s meeting Nov. 16 to urge the commissioners to limit the accessibility of certain databases and books available to Nebraska children in city and public school libraries. 

The Nebraska Library Commission, established in 1901 as a part of the Nebraska executive branch, promotes, develops and coordinates statewide library services in city, school, university and institutional libraries. The commission is governed by a six-member board appointed by the governor.

On Thursday, The Nebraska Library Commission held its bimonthly meeting for just over two hours. About half of that time was spent on public commentary while the rest of the meeting included brief conversations about new or ongoing initiatives and services offered by the commission and a financial report. 

More than 20 community members attended the meeting, many of them members of the Protect Child Health Coalition and Nebraskans For Founders Values, to talk about concerns regarding content available to Nebraskans through library databases and book collections during the public comment section of the meeting. 

“Nebraska tax dollars are being used to fund pornography which may be found at any level: elementary, middle school or high school in public and public school libraries,” said Marilyn Asher, the president of Nebraskans for Founders Values and first public commenter at the meeting.

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Nebraska Lincoln Commission members and staff wait for the meeting to start. Ruth Bailey/Nebraska News Service.

The Nebraskans for Founders Values is part of nationwide book banning efforts that it says rooted in biblical values, and the Protect Child Health Coalition is associated with Family Watch International, a hate group as defined by the Southern Poverty Law Center for its anti-LGBTQIA+ views and affiliation with conversion therapy for gay people. 

Nine people spoke during public commentary, both for and against limiting books and content available to the public through Nebraska library services, both online and in-person. Those against limiting access to content for children said they don’t want to ban books, but they want to set a clear standard based on a stricter obscenity definition. Some also argued that the content of some books were morally incorrect and don’t contribute to the intellectual or emotional growth of children.

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Marilyn Asher, the lead speaker for those in favor of restricting materials accessible to children in Nebraska public libraries, gives public commentary. Ruth Bailey/Nebraska News Service.

“These databases contain subscriptions that are stealing the good life of the Nebraska community because they are stealing the innocence of children who are just doing their homework,” Asher said. 

Five people spoke in favor of restricting materials available to children through NebraskaAccess, the public database provided exclusively for Nebraskans by the Nebraska Library Commission, while four spoke against it. For the five who spoke in favor, it isn’t about banning books, rather banning the access that children have to obscene and violent content. 

“Nebraska Library Commission has been inadvertently facilitating the availability of obscenity by purchasing subscriptions to digital encyclopedias, known as databases, found in NebraskaAccess,” she said. 

Asher distributed a packet with examples of searches she conducted from the elementary-level Nebraska public library database that contained nudity. She also included a general search of the phrase “sex toys,” which produced eight results, including the words “sex toys.”  

Those who argued against restricting books and materials available to children said that limiting what children could consume was forcing a biased belief system onto Nebraska public libraries.

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Joanne Ferguson Cavanaugh talks about why the commissioners shouldn’t restrict access to certain books in public libraries. Ruth Bailey/Nebraska News Service.

“Libraries make things accessible to all people from all walks of life. And people may not have your same belief system, but that does not mean that they don’t have value,” said Joanne Ferguson Cavanaugh, a retired Omaha librarian and current community activist. 

She said parents should monitor the consumption of literature as opposed to limiting access to literature. 

Paul Von Behren and Brad Yerger, one current Freemont city council member and one former, also spoke in favor of a stricter system of access to books. Yerger and Von Behren, joined by a few other Fremont citizens, came to talk about their city’s demand for the removal of specific LGBTQIA+ and sex education books in public libraries.

Von Behren said the freedom to read should not be the basis on which Nebraska libraries offer content. He said a set community standard should determine what libraries can and cannot make available to the public. While he didn’t outline exactly how a community should go about setting up those standards, he said that it should be up to the library councils in cities to listen to the people and create policies reflecting a set of standards representative of community beliefs. 

“Everything else has been thrown out in favor of intellectual freedom. And that’s never been the basis for what this country has done,” Von Behren said. 

He said society is governed by standards in every other aspect of life, like standards of behavior. Instead of having parents opt out of letting their kids consume certain materials, Von Behren suggests parents should have to opt in to let their children read certain books. 

However, Amanda Gailey, an associate professor of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said it should be up to the parents to restrict what children consume and not the state. 

“Different parents have different standards,” she said. 

Gailey said it should be up to them to regulate what their children read. She said the root of the problem of the destruction of children’s innocence isn’t libraries. It’s technology and social media. 

“You are displacing your fears onto the wrong people,” Gailey said. 

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Amanda Gailey talks about her experience as a professor and mother. Ruth Bailey/Nebraska News Service.

She said social media companies should regulate what they make accessible to children and how they are the catalyst for mental health issues, not books, as other speakers had said. 

Although children have access to these materials people are trying to regulate, for some speakers, it was less about how they are accessing these materials and more about the morality of materials offered by public resources. 

Caroline Epp, Doug Wittmann and Gene Shultz used their religious and moral beliefs to advocate for limiting database subscriptions and books in public libraries. 

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Caroline Epp reads her speech to the Nebraska Library Commission. Ruth Bailey/Nebraska News Service.

“We need books in our libraries which uphold the try and true standard of one man and one woman in marriage, creating the family,” Epp said. 

She said Scholastic Books was the culprit of youth mental health issues because of its promotion of works by LGBTQIA+ creators. 

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Doug Wittmann talks about the translation of his religious beliefs to state policy. Ruth Bailey/Nebraska News Service.

Wittmann agreed and said that while there is diversity in beliefs about what is right and what is wrong, the Christian God determines community standards. 

“He [God] has given you guys power to regulate the policies,” Wittmann said to the commissioners.

Agreeing with Gailey, Paige Wagner, an Omaha librarian, focused on the importance of mental health in the younger generation. She said that determining what children can and can’t read is telling who they can and can’t be. According to Wagner, censoring what they consume contributes to youth mental illness. 

She also acknowledged the role of religious beliefs mentioned in earlier comments by proclaiming her identity as a person of faith but admonishing those in the room who were using God as a tool of restriction. 

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Paige Wagner expresses her shock at someone’s public comment about restricting public library materials. Ruth Bailey/Nebraska News Service.

“How could anyone tell someone who they’re allowed to love what is in their heart and their feelings?” Wagner said. “You have no right to do that.”

Wagner urged those in attendance to “Have a heart. Be kind. Be compassionate. Please stop spewing hate.”

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Gene Schultz reads an excerpt from “The Naked Communist” to the commissioners. Ruth Bailey/Nebraska News Service.

Schultz, also from Fremont, read an excerpt from “The Naked Communist,” drawing a comparison to some of the rules outlined in the book to the books accessible in Nebraska public libraries. 

After Schultz’s comments, Murphy Cavanaugh, a third-year law student at UNL, said as the person in the room closest to the age of the children being discussed, she understood how children consume literature and media better than most people in the room. 

“No one’s going to a public library or to their school library and looking up pornography. That’s just not happening, that’s not something that children are doing,” Cavanaugh said. 

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Murphy Cavanaugh talks about the relevance of her age and why restricting library materials won’t change the accessibility of obscene material. Ruth Bailey/Nebraska News Service.

She agreed with Gailey that children already have access to pornography and other obscene content through social media and other resources available to them on their phones. They don’t need to log into a library database to get this information, Cavanaugh said. 

While the board asked about what research was conducted and how differences in morals would result in a unified set of standards, the commission took no action on the issue but indicated they would take the comments under advisement.