What one group calls protecting minors from obscenity, another calls censorship.

On Feb. 28, League City City Council voted in favor of an ordinance creating a new committee responsible for reviewing Helen Hall Library books residents flag as potentially harmful or offensive.

During the weeks leading up to the vote, dozens of residents balked at the decision. Many claimed the Community Standards Review Committee was an attempt to ban LGBTQ-themed books from the library.

Katherine Swanson, spokesperson for the Galveston County Library Alliance, a grassroots group formed in response to the ordinance, was one of about 20 who protested outside League City City Council chambers Feb. 28. Alliance members said they are considering lawsuits or other ways to fight the ordinance.

“We’re citizens upset about what City Council is trying to do, and we feel that it is government overreach and that it’s becoming big government, and we don’t approve of that,” Swanson said at the protest.

Meanwhile, Council Member Justin Hicks, who brought the ordinance before council, said it is not a book ban but an attempt to protect children. He also said the Clear Creek ISD board of trustees passed an even more stringent policy concerning school libraries before council passed its ordinance.

“It’s about sexual topics ... and obscenity,” Hicks said.

Early beginnings

Hicks’ idea for a new committee began in fall 2021 when he received resident complaints about certain books available in the library. In a November 2021 email to City Manager John Baumgartner, Hicks requested one of the books, “Sex is a Funny Word,” be removed from the library, calling it “indoctrinating and smut.”

Hicks said he attempted to work with the Helen Hall Library board of trustees about his concerns but was “kind of blown off.” He told residents to fill out a packet for the board to officially consider reshelving or removing the books in question, but residents said they received no response when they did, Hicks said.

“I don’t know where the ball was dropped,” he said.

Kyrsten Garcia, Helen Hall Library board secretary, said Hicks expected the books in question to be banned at his request when the board already had a formal process to consider action on such books.

“That’s not what he wanted to hear,” Garcia said.

Furthermore, there is “no evidence” the public submitted book challenges that went unaddressed, she said.

In November 2021, the board reviewed a request to remove “Sex is a Funny Word” from the library and opted to move it from the children’s section to the parenting section. In April 2022, the board reviewed another controversial book, “Gender Queer,” and moved it from the teen section to the adult section.

In the end, Hicks decided to bring a resolution before council prohibiting the city from spending tax dollars on “obscene” material intended for minors at the library. Topics considered obscene under the resolution, which passed Dec. 6, include pedophilia; incest; rape; bondage; and sex, nudity and sexual preference in books with an intended audience of those less than 10 years old.

“Gender ideology” and “ideologue human sexuality” were originally part of the list of topics considered obscene but were removed before approval.

Many residents opposed this resolution, claiming it was an attempt at restricting children from reading books about LGBTQ topics. The fight continued over council’s February vote on the proposed new book review committee.

Jay Cunningham, president of the CCISD board of trustees, said the board voted unanimously in late February for a new policy that, similar to League City’s, will allow parents to challenge school library books. Additionally, certain books will be kept out of reach of elementary students and be accessible only with parent permission, Cunningham said.

Cunningham said the district has not received blowback over this decision, likely due to the fact that school libraries are not available to anyone, unlike public libraries.

“I would say that’s the difference,” Cunningham said. “The public library is just that: It’s public.”

However, Swanson said the alliance opposes CCISD’s new policy and would have protested the decision had members been aware of it, which they were not.

New committee

Many who publicly spoke against the ordinance, including Swanson, said the resolution indicated the intention of the new committee is to help residents ban books with LGBTQ themes. Swanson admitted the resolution that passed was an improvement over what was originally proposed.

“But it’s still a book ban,” she said, saying reshelving books from sections for their intended audience is a form of censorship. “It’s upsetting.”

Hicks disagreed with the term “book ban.”

“We haven’t banned one single book from League City. Not one,” he said. “That was never the intent.”

Hicks said the resolution was not targeted at LGBTQ books. He said he would feel the same way about the books in question if they covered heterosexual sex.

“There’s a place and time for everybody to learn all that stuff,” Hicks said.

The Texas Library Association, which exists to support public, school and academic libraries across the state, also disagrees with League City’s decision. While residents’ reactions to controversial books is “understandable,” League City’s new committee is a step too far, said Shirely Robinson, the association’s executive director.

“I think what’s happened in League City is some overreach by that particular city government,” she said.

Swanson said if this new committee does reshelve certain books to the adult section, she will have to enter the adult section with her child to find the books she wants to check out for them, exposing her child to adult books she does not want them around.

“I don’t think [council] sees the irony of that,” she said.

Not all council members supported the ordinance. Council Members Chad Tressler, John Bowen and Tom Crews all voted against it.

Bowen said the new committee is “wrong on so many levels” because the government should not make decisions that should be made by parents. Tressler said even though the resolution’s language changed, the ordinance was still targeting LGBTQ people.

“That’s not right,” he said during the Feb. 28 meeting. “Taking that language out doesn’t change the fact that that was the intent of it.”

Some Helen Hall Library trustees also disapprove of the new committee.

“It’s unnecessary, and it shouldn’t have been created in the first place,” Garcia said, pointing out the board has been reviewing books for years in line with the American Library Association’s standards. “At no point did council come talk to the board.”

Swanson and other alliance members are applying for a spot on the committee, though she said there has been no word on when applications will close.

Next steps

Opponents of the resolution and ordinance have threatened lawsuits. A few opponents who spoke publicly at council meetings said the new committee would lead to expensive litigation for the city.

“We are still looking at ways to fight the ordinance,” Swanson said. “I do know many members of the community are still seeking avenues, and one of those avenues may be a lawsuit.”

On Feb. 14, the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Texas wrote a letter to council opposing the ordinance. When it passed, ACLU of Texas tweeted, “We’ll monitor what happens next to protect our rights.”

Meanwhile, Hicks said everything council has done is consistent with state law.

Robinson said the Texas Library Association is monitoring 37 bills that have been filed in the Texas Legislature that could change how libraries function. About a dozen would make it possible for librarians to be criminally prosecuted for books in their collections, she said.

“So that’s terrifying,” Robinson said.