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Garfield County Libraries hosts “Freedom to Read” forum amid controversy, criticism from county commissioners

Members of the public trickle down from the audience at the Ute Theater in Rifle on October 18. Speakers were either in favor of restricting access to library books for children or in favor of broader access.
Rifle Community TV
Members of the public trickle down from the audience at the Ute Theater in Rifle on October 18. Speakers were either in favor of restricting access to library books for children or in favor of broader access.

Pueden encontrar la versión en Español aquí.

The Garfield County Public Library District has had to deal with no small amount of controversy over the past couple of months. That culminated in a “Freedom to Read” forum hosted at the Ute Theater in Rifle on October 18.

GCPLD organized the event in response to a petition from a Rifle resident, which asked the library to restrict access to several Japanese manga graphic novels, claiming they’re pornographic. Trish O’Grady asked the library to put the books in a separate room marked for adults only, keep them under lock and key, and require an ID to be able to check them out. If the library won’t do that, she said, they should remove them from shelves altogether.

GCPLD executive director Jamie LaRue began the night with a presentation about First Amendment rights and the history of libraries in America.

“Even school boards who think they have a great deal of power come up against the fact that students, minors also have First Amendment rights,” he said. “And that you can't just remove books from children or grievously restrict their access to them. It's unconstitutional.”

LaRue also explained that two recently challenged books were clearly marked as adult books and were shelved far away from the children’s section. He also said it’s not the responsibility of library staff to monitor what children check out.

“Because, and I realize this may be a surprise to some of you, not all parents want the same thing,” he said. “And expecting us to know and enforce each individual sets of parents’ (rules) is not fair.”

The public then had about an hour and a half to voice their opinions. In order to get equal speaking time, the public lined up to speak in two different groups: those in favor of more restrictions and those against them. Each speaker was given three minutes to talk. Sopris Sun editor Raleigh Burleigh moderated the conversation.

John Lepkowski of Silt was one of the speakers in favor of more restrictions. He said that by making these books available to children, it puts the library on the level of a “porn store.”

“We're in a way following the communist game plan perfectly,” he said. “They wanna sexualize children. That's one of their game plans. Get everybody against each other.”

Christy Ray of Rifle was on the opposite side of the issue. She said it doesn’t matter whether people personally approve of the book’s content.

“The questions are: is it the public library's responsibility to decide what I or my family reads? And is it a government official's responsibility to decide what I or my family reads?” she said. “And I feel like the answer to both is a resounding no.”

Longtime Rifle resident Debbie Grizzle said Garfield County commissioners do not speak for her or represent her views on the library and the services they provide.

In an October 16 meeting, Garfield County Commissioner Mike Samson called some of the content in the books, “Filth, garbage, sickening things.”

“I don’t even think adults should be looking at stuff like that,” he went on to say.

But Grizzle felt differently.

“I've gone to story hour since 2000 and we've spent countless hours in the library,” she said of her and her family. “And I've never seen a pornographic book where the kids could get to it.”

“I commend the staff for their professionalism, kindness, and knowledge,” she went on. “And I also trust the library board of trustees to manage our library and to have open, respectful, and honest discourse with parents and patrons.”

But Rifle resident Sally Moore said that kids can take things out of context, and should be protected.

“I don't want to explain to young people what these pictures are about,” she said. “I don't want to explain to young people why those books on that low shelf… ‘You're not supposed to touch those honey, we're not gonna go over there, my dear.’ I don't want to have to have that conversation.”

No decision was made at the meeting, but LaRue said he and other library officials would consider the feedback as they determined next steps.

The forum is available to watch in full on RifleTV.plus.

But it wasn’t just library officials listening closely to what the public had to say. Garfield County Commissioners expressed their interest in the meeting, after hearing about the book removal petition at a GCPLD board of trustees meeting. Amid the controversy, the board is trying to fill a vacancy, but only has one applicant.

Hanna Arauza applied to represent Rifle on the GCPLD board of trustees, and the other trustees unanimously voted to approve her application. Arauza’s appointment now has to be confirmed by county commissioners, all three of which are currently Republican.

But in recent meetings, the controversy over restricting access to certain books has slowed down the process of Arauza’s confirmation.

During the board’s October 9 meeting, Commissioner Tom Jankovsky asked Arauza for her personal position on restricting access to books. She replied that she didn’t think the status quo needed to change at the library.

“So you think children should have access to pornography in the library?” Jankovsky asked.

“I don’t think that’s the case, I think parents should watch their children while they’re in the library,” Arauza said. “(In) the current system, especially in the Rifle Library, the kid’s section is off in its own section. I can see them from any point in the library, I can hear them from any point in the library. And it’s my responsibility to see what they’re exposed to.”

Both Jankovsky and board chair John Martin agreed to postpone a vote on Arauza’s appointment until Mike Samson returned from a hunting trip. The board took up the issue again on October 16, this time with Samson present.

Arauza’s husband, Steven, is running as a Democrat against Samson for his District 3 seat on the board. Samson acknowledged that right off the bat, saying it wouldn’t impact his decision, but it was still important to fully disclose.

Arauza also clarified that her personal beliefs on how the library should shelve books would not impact her role as trustee.

"I'd be responding to the needs of the community," she said. "I'd be representing my town of Rifle."

She also said that there are many issues important to the library beyond restricting access to books for children, like its 2024 budget.

"I want to be on this board so that I can fulfill all of those responsibilities, and I would be disappointed if this entire appointment was boiled down to an issue of a few books that are not appropriate for children," she told commissioners.

Samson said he wanted to wait to hear the comments at the Freedom to Read forum before making a decision on her appointment. He still hasn’t said which way he will vote on Arauza’s appointment.

Garfield County’s legal counsel has said that the library board of trustees could overturn the commissioners’ decision if they decline to confirm Arauza.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misspelled John Lepkowski's name. This story has been updated with the correct spelling.

Caroline Llanes is a general assignment reporter at Aspen Public Radio, covering everything from local governments to public lands. Her work has been featured on NPR. Previously, she was an associate producer for WBUR’s Morning Edition in Boston.