BYRON TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — In recent months, public meetings have become battlefields for heated culture wars.
But it’s usually the citizens who do most of the campaigning.
That wasn’t the case at a meeting of the Byron Township Board of Trustees on Sept. 27.
“That right there, ‘Check, Please,’ is trash,” proclaimed trustee Tom Hooker, referring to a graphic novel on shelves at 11 Kent District Library branches.
“Tax dollars are providing trash,” said Hooker.
Don Tillema, Byron Township supervisor, echoed Hooker’s concern.
“Everybody’s telling us that thing was on the wrong cart and all this, but our issue is more, you know, why is this kind of crap even in the building,” asked Tillema.
Trustees were questioning Lance Werner, executive director of Kent District Libraries.
They’d invited Werner to the meeting after learning of an incident that occurred at the Caledonia KDL branch in July.
“The reason we asked you to come,” explained Tillema, “this come to our attention a month ago.”
The supervisor held up a photocopy of the front cover of “Check, Please.”
“This thing was in the library, and this thing ain’t fit for me to read hardly, leave alone any 10-year-old kid,” said Tillema.
In July, a 10-year-old boy pulled the book off a shelf labelled “teen” at the Caledonia library.
Werner said the boy put the book back, but his mom reviewed it and complained.
“Check, Please” is a popular webcomic that follows a figure skater and vlogger turned college hockey player who’s growing in his identity as a gay man.
The graphic novel includes drinking and swearing.
Several days after this report aired, Byron Township called News 8 to clarify its concerns with the book. Supervisor Don Tillema said over the phone that he objected only to the pervasive swearing in the book, not the sexuality of the main character.
At the Sept. 27 meeting, Werner noted “Check, Please” is intended for tenth grade and above. He also explained that while the book was on a shelf labeled “teen,” it had been placed on a “prize cart” that included a shelf marked “children” as well.
Young people who’d read a certain amount could choose one book from the “prize cart” to keep for good.
Werner said, in the future, the library will not include any “salty” books on the “prize cart” because children might accidentally choose from the “teen” shelf instead of the one labeled “children,” as happened in the case of the ten-year-old boy.
Still, Werner said “Check, Please” is protected by the U.S. Constitution and, therefore, would not be pulled from the library altogether.
“You guys are asking us to violate the Constitution and impinge on people’s freedom,” explained Werner. “No one should want the government to tell them what to read. That goes against everything we stand for in this country. And the other thing we can’t do is we can’t step in the shoes of the parent…. Nor should anybody want the government to raise their kids.”
Werner explained the only content not protected by the Constitution is obscenity, child pornography and hate speech, as defined by federal law.
If a book included any of those three elements, KDL would remove it, according to Werner.
But so far, Werner said no book has warranted removal.
At one point, Tillema implied he would consider defunding the library.
“I guess where we’re sitting, I’m not sure how long we want to give you guys $1.6 million a year and provide you a building for all this legal stuff. ‘Cause I think it’s despicable… Maybe we’ll turn (the library building) into a shoe store,” said Tillema.
To that, Werner said, “Well, I hope that doesn’t come to pass. You know we care about the community, and we care about you. But we’re not willing to violate the Constitution.”
TOWNSHIP CLERK SAYS LIBRARY NOT AT RISK
News 8 learned of the September Board meeting when a tipster sent the YouTube link to the newsroom.
He was concerned the supervisor might attempt to pull the library’s funding.
But Byron Township Clerk Peggy Sattler assured News 8 on Friday the library is safe.
Sattler said Tillema was speaking off the cuff and has no intention of going after the library.
Neither Tillema nor Hooker responded to News 8’s emails requesting comment.
Of the seven citizens who spoke, two — a husband and wife — wanted “Check, Please” removed.
“Everybody has their freedoms, I get it,” stated Nancy Grit. “But we have the right to raise our children the way we want to…. I want (Byron) to stay the way it is… Clean it up,” she said before leaving the podium.
Grit’s husband, Duane, directed a comment to an audience member who spoke in support of keeping the book on the shelves.
“Supposedly you’re standing up for the First Amendment,” said Duane Grit. “Doesn’t sound like it to me. Sounds like you got one way and that’s the only way. Guess what? That ain’t how it works.”
Those who defended the book in question noted parents should be monitoring their kids’ reading material.
“As a parent, or a grandparent of a child, I feel it’s your responsibility to be watching what they’re looking at, or what they’re reading,” said Suzanne Snider of Gaines Township. “That’s our responsibility. That’s not the responsibility of the library…. I would hate to see any of those works taken out of that library because there’s something there for everybody, and everybody relates to things in different ways. This country is made up of all different kinds of people from different walks of life, and we need to continue to represent that and allow those freedoms to be there.”
UPTICK IN BOOK CHALLENGES
Werner told News 8 the library system has seen an increase in book challenges this year.
So far in 2021, citizens have filed challenges to four books.
Most years, there are two to three challenges total.
“I think that we’ve had kind of an increase, an uptick, lately in challenges to materials, and I think it’s largely due to the fact that everybody in society is super-duper stressed right now. Between COVID-19, between the caustic political environment and all the things that are going on, I think everybody is under duress,” said Werner.
“When we get a materials challenge, we review the item. If it’s not protected by the Constitution, we would pull it off the shelf. If it is protected by the Constitution, we will not.”
The American Library Association confirmed to News 8 that it’s seen an increase in challenges to books nationwide as well, particularly books about racism.
The ALA said social media has multiplied removal efforts exponentially and groups are targeting specific titles across the country.