The Faulkner County Library Board recently canceled more than a dozen public meetings in the Conway library, even noncontroversial ones, after the county judge warned members they needed to “avoid what happened in Craighead County.”
Faulkner County Judge Allen Dodson‘s comment at a January board meeting was a reference to a November vote that slashed tax funding for the Craighead County Jonesboro Public Library.
Library director John McGraw said Thursday he doesn’t expect any further community-led gatherings to take place again in the library’s meeting rooms for the remainder of the year except for those done in partnership with the library and a tax-assistance program.
On March 20, the library board is expected to consider a proposal under which community-led events could no longer gather in the library’s meeting rooms. Nor could church or student study groups reserve those rooms as they have in the past.
“The First Amendment does not allow me to take content into consideration” on determining how to use a public space, McGraw told the Arkansas Times. That’s why he canceled all of the meetings, not just contentious ones, he indicated.
“It is a question of making the best of a bad situation,” McGraw said.
Some elected officials, including Faulkner County Justice of the Peace Andy Shock, had complained after a drag queen showed up in January for an inclusive children’s story hour at the library. The event was a community-led event sponsored by the Faulkner County Coalition for Social Justice and was not a library-sponsored gathering. It took place in a meeting room across the aisle from another community-led event, “Pastor Story Hour,” where a minister delivered “a biblical message” to children and their parents or guardians.
“These are not library events,” McGraw said. “For some reason, it’s impossible [for people] to make that distinction.
“For all I know, the concealed-carry classes [that have met in library meeting rooms] are being taught by drag queens,” he said.
During the January meeting, a frustrated board member, Jeff Moncrease, complained, “We never have had a library-sponsored drag queen event here. … It didn’t happen until” people started making drag queens an issue, he suggested.
Later, McGraw said, “We did not bring a drag queen” into the library. “We did not stop a drag queen from coming in the door.”
Dodson also suggested at the January meeting that the board might want to move some children’s books to areas harder for children to reach unless their parents helped them access them. Dodson mentioned putting potentially objectionable ones behind a glass shield or on a high shelf.
In an email, McGraw said, “We do have a robust reconsideration policy but have no book challenges in the pipeline. I hear a lot of talk about people being mad about the books we have, but they have not filled out the very brief paperwork required to challenge” those books.
Further, McGraw said, “There has been no concrete proposal to place things out of reach or behind glass. Prior court cases such as Island Trees v. Pico, Sund v. Wichita Falls, and most topical Arkansas’ own Counts v. Cedarville suggest that that would get me sued very fast.”
An email from Faulkner County Justice of the Peace Jonny Tyler to state Sen. Dan Sullivan, a Jonesboro Republican, shows that Tyler praised Sullivan for the defunding action in Craighead County and sought advice.
The email was obtained under the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act by others and shared with the Times. I did my own FOI request on Monday, though I did not get a responsive document from Dodson or the county attorney, Phil Murphy, until today, about 10 minutes after this story was first posted.. Only McGraw responded promptly.
“There are a number of groups with whom we have partnered in the past to provide programs or services or attractions to the county, including the Faulkner County Historical Society, the Conway League of Artists, CAPCA, and many others. We are talking to some of these partners about [a memorandum of understanding] that spells out what they provide to us and perhaps allows these affiliated groups to use a meeting space if they need one,” McGraw said in an email.
Yoga and tai chi exercise programs would not be affected by the cancellations because they are library-sponsored events in which the library pays the instructor, he noted.
The Faulkner County Coalition for Social Justice led the inclusive story hour in January. At that meeting, a child brought the book “If You’re a Drag Queen and You know It” and asked a drag queen who was present to read it as one of the books shared that day, according to Leah Bilokury, a coalition member.
In a news release, the coalition said it had to move its February story hour celebrating Black History Month to another location because of the cancellation.
“Our community wants Inclusive Story Hour, and our marginalized neighbors need the space to come together in community: The fact that we pivoted just days before the event to an entirely different location and still had community members attend proves this point further. The library should be a safe space for everyone, including visibly queer folks. Public use of the meeting rooms is a library resource. Halting use of the rooms to prevent us from hosting Inclusive Story Hour goes against the ALA’s own professional code of ethics,” the coalition said.