Copies of The New York Times are safe from censorship at the Flagler County Public Library, and the County Commission has no intention of dictating to the library director how she may spend her budget, let alone what periodicals to subscribe to, or not. The public library doesn’t have the money to provide digital access to The New York Times–not yet, anyway, but will consider it, especially if patrons request it.
The county administrator, commissioners and members of the Library Board of Trustees all say they wouldn’t dream of replicating what Citrus County commissioners recently did when such a request crossed their dais.
In late October the Citrus County Commission said it would turn down its public library’s request for a $2,657-a-year digital subscription to The New York Times. The subscription would have given all library patrons online access to the paper from anywhere, at no charge. Commissioners rejected the request.
“Fake news, OK? I agree with President Trump,” Commissioner Scott Carnahan said. “I will not be voting for this. I don’t want The New York Times in this county. OK, so, I did second it, but just to have the discussion to say I don’t agree with it. I don’t like them, it’s fake news, and I’m voting no.” It’s not clear if Carnahan was taking his cues from Trump’s decision that same day to cancel the White House subscriptions to The Times and the Washington Post.
Citrus County Commission’s Decision on The Times:
“This is the library’s request,” the seemingly nonplussed Citrus County Manager Randy Oliver–one of the sharpest and cultured managers in the state–told Smith.
“Sorry Eric,” Smith continued, referring to Eric Head, the county library director. “I know you have 140 readers, but those guys [sic.] can subscribe it [sic.] and come to their home. I support Donald Trump.” In fact, the subscription would allow access to weekday and Sunday editions for up to 140,000 users–the actual population of Citrus County. An equivalent, single home-delivery subscription costs $1,040.
Other commissioners joined in. The motion was withdrawn. But The commission’s politically biased rejection of the proposal triggered swift condemnations across the country and from the American Library Association. “Our constitution and Bill of Rights promises every person the right and equal opportunity to discover, develop, and defend her own political, social, and religious beliefs,” the association said in a statement. “A government official’s decision to prevent access to a particular publication based on partisan disapproval of that publication denies this right. We stand by our Freedom to Read Statement: we believe that democratic societies are more safe, free, and creative when the free flow of public information is not restricted by governmental prerogative.”
Flagler County Library Director Holly Albanese said she was surprised by the involvement of a county commission in a subscription matter. The Flagler library, she said, has hard-copy subscriptions to national papers such as The Times, the Post, the Wall Street Journal, Barron’s and USA Today, and papers like The Times are so popular that the day’s issue must be kept behind the counter, and patrons must hand over an ID, to get the copy. Otherwise, it would disappear. Albanese said she’s considered digital access to certain periodicals, but cost is always a factor, and local demographics tell her the preference for print products remains strong for now. “It’s just simply money,” Albanese said, though she said “it would certainly bring it to the forefront if we got those requests.” The Flagler library system this year has a $228,000 budget for materials (including for the Bunnell branch library), $80,000 of it for buying hard-copy books, and $26,000 appropriated for two e-book services that are fast gaining popularity. Periodicals cost the library $5,600 a year, not including law-related subscriptions, including Westlaw, that cost $11,000.
Disputes over content have been a n on-issue at the Flagler library. Occasionally a patron will complain about an R-Rated DVD, but it doesn’t go further than that. The library makes available a “materials reconsideration form” that allows patrons to challenge any given item available at the library. But while some patrons have taken a form, none has been turned in for years, Albanese said. If it were, it would go through a policy-based process to determine a response.
Jim Ulsamer, who chairs the Library Board of Trustees and was previously involved with the American Library Association, said the library community, doesn’t anticipate Citrus-like issues in Flagler. “The library has always taken the stand against any form of censorship, that’s pretty much what you can expect in general from the library community,” Ulsamer said. “We as a board of trustees have never gotten involved in any kind of censorship issues. I don’t think I’d even entertain them. There’s always strange things that could come up, but I’d never say never.” As for decisions on materials, “there are budget considerations unfortunately. We leave that up to Holly as the chief operating officer to make those kinds of decisions.” Dave Sullivan, who serves both on the library board and the county commission, and who is an avowed and generally ardent Trump supporter, called the Citrus decision “just stupid,” and spoke even stronger language about the commissioners themselves. “I don’t know what kind of official of any consequence whatsoever would take that position.”
The Citrus commissioners, in other words, had no business getting into the minutiae of the library’s decisions: “First of all it’s up to the library itself, Holly Albanese, that’s within her scope of decision-making to do that,” Sullivan said. “The only way it would get to us is if citizens made a complaint about it. I don’t think it would ever get–in our county–to the county commission. It might, but I’d say it would be a foolish thing to bring forward. It would be a waste of time.” (Sullivan says The Times may have published “questionable” articles, “but I don’t think in general it is fake news. No. ‘All the news that’s fit to print,’” he said, citing the paper’s enduring motto. “The old gray lady.”)
Alan Peterson, who until July was on the library board and had served two terms as a county commissioner, said it would be inconceivable for Flagler officials to mimic the Citrus commissioners. “No, no, that’s ridiculous, that’s censorship in its worst form,” Peterson said. “There’s never in my opinion been enough money to spend on the library and different things it needs. If it were me I’d weigh that $2,000 against other requirements or options that could be purchased instead. The greatest benefits for the greatest number kind of thing. If I was still on either board I would certainly consider it.”
Peterson, a Republican who describes himself as a fiscal conservative but a social moderate, said of The Times that “the only person who believes it’s fake news is the president. I think there’s bias, clearly, but I don’t think it’s fake. And I’m not accusing the New York Times of being biased, I think there’s bias in the news, whether it be print or media, but certainly not fake.”
County Commission Chairman Donald O’Brien, also a Republican (there are no Democrats on the commission), said of a library’s budget request that he would “never put a political spin on something like that. I would never interfere with her judgment as to what is appropriate. I respect her judgment, and I would certainly not inject politics into those kinds of decisions. Never.”
Jerry Cameron, the county administrator–and a reader of innumerable media, including The Times, the Post, business journals and all local media–termed it “strange” that county commissioners would mix budget and politics. “They could say it’s not a creditable news source, for that reason they don’t want to do it. Once you say you’re not doing that for political reasons and you’re using tax dollars, I think you have a problem.”
Library budget decisions are always a balancing act, but disconnected from politics. “I’m not into censoring,” Cameron added, speaking distaste for the term “fake news.”
“I think they print some erroneous stuff like any other publication,” he said of The Times. “It’s just not a term I’ve ever adopted. I consider it to be a political term and I need to keep myself divorced from that.”