STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
In this country, we've heard a lot about school districts imposing book bans. Now some states are passing laws to tighten control over public libraries. Jim Zarroli reports.
JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: In April, the Kentucky Legislature approved a bill that will change the way public libraries in the state are run. For the first time, politicians can appoint the local boards that control public libraries in most counties. State Representative Patti Minter warns that the bill opens libraries up to political influence.
PATTI MINTER: It's giving all of this power to partisan elected officials in counties. And if their constituents start telling them they want to ban books, this would allow them to do it. This is incredibly dangerous.
ZARROLI: The bill is one example of what library groups say is a disturbing trend. At a time of growing controversy over book bans in schools, some states are changing the laws that govern libraries serving the broader community. Deborah Caldwell-Stone is with the American Library Association.
DEBORAH CALDWELL-STONE: We're seeing more indirect efforts to control what's available to the community or to put in laws that would direct how the library staff collects books.
ZARROLI: In Iowa, a bill was sent to committee allowing city councils to overturn a library's decision about what books to buy and where they're displayed. Oklahoma approved a bill requiring libraries to install a filter on internet databases that prevents children from seeing obscene material, as defined by the Supreme Court. That's something the federal government already requires, but the bill would also open librarians who don't do so to legal consequences. Right now, they're protected from liability in most places. The bill's sponsor, Todd Russ, says the bill will apply very rarely, if ever, and only when librarians deliberately flout the law.
TODD RUSS: We're trying to be good partners here. We're not trying to create all these class-action lawsuits. We want to work with them to help create good protection, common sense stuff.
ZARROLI: But similar bills have been proposed in Iowa, Indiana and other states. And Caldwell-Stone notes that legal sanctions against librarians are not unthinkable. Parents in one Wyoming county complained to the local sheriff about books on LGBT subjects.
CALDWELL-STONE: They actually filed criminal complaints with the local prosecutor, arguing that the library and the library staff was pandering obscenity to minors.
ZARROLI: Prosecutors decided not to press charges, and such cases so far have been exceedingly rare. But library groups say they're operating in a much more partisan climate that undermines their independence. The mayor of Ridgeland, Miss., withheld funding to the local library after it displayed books on LGBT themes. Jean Ruark of the Kentucky Library Association says her group did all it could to fight the bill giving local politicians control over library boards. Once their opposition would have made a difference. But in an election year, she says, the political climate is simply too heated.
JEAN RUARK: It seemed as though our efforts fell on deaf ears. There was a big outcry about the passage of that, and they did it anyway.
ZARROLI: The bill was passed by the legislature and vetoed by Kentucky's Democratic governor, Andy Beshear. But determined lawmakers were able to override his veto, and the bill takes effect at the start of next year.
For NPR News, this is Jim Zarroli.
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