Does 'Freedom to Read' Apply to DVDs?
Sunday, July 9, 2006
The culture wars have returned to Loudoun County's public library system -- or, more precisely, to the tidy rows of DVDs at its seven branches.
There, between episodes of "Sesame Street" and documentaries about Julia Child and the Civil War, patrons can find a collection of more popular titles -- after they're checked in, that is. Most days, the DVD shelves are picked clean, with "Some Like It Hot" starring Marilyn Monroe and the BBC's "Mystery" series more likely to be available than "Crash" or "The Passion of the Christ."
The library system's 440 R-rated movies are especially popular. They are also provoking a public battle between the county's Board of Supervisors and the library board of trustees. The supervisors recently voted 8 to 1 to ask the trustees to stop spending county dollars on adult-oriented movies with an R rating. This month, the trustees say they plan to respectfully decline the request.
Supervisors appoint the trustees and approve the library system's annual budget of about $10.5 million. But library boards in Virginia are otherwise independent. By state code, cities and counties may control the amount of money their public libraries have to spend but not how they spend it.
Some say the Loudoun skirmish helps illustrate why. They say the supervisors' actions are akin to censorship and violate a basic principle espoused by most libraries in the United States: that the freedom to read (and listen and view) is a right of library users with which the government should not interfere, even if the material includes strong language, violence, nudity or drug abuse and is unsuitable for children under 17.
The debate harks back to a high-profile controversy nearly a decade ago over whether Loudoun's libraries should filter access to the Internet. The library board had imposed one of the most restrictive filters in the nation, but a federal judge struck it down a year later.
"I don't think it's appropriate for the government to be deciding what materials were appropriate for all of Loudoun County," said Clyde W. Grotophorst, a member of the library board who voted to reject the supervisors' request. Grotophorst is also a librarian at George Mason University. He sought a seat on the board to prevent the type of censorship that he saw in the Internet filtering policy in the late 1990s.
Supervisor Lori Waters (R-Broad Run), one of two who pushed to discourage the purchase of R-rated movies, said her purpose was not to censor but to spend limited tax dollars wisely. Waters is the former executive director of the conservative, D.C.-based Eagle Forum.
"This past budget, they asked for more money to buy more materials for the library, and we weren't able to give them additional funds -- and that was part of my point," Waters said. "We have companies like Blockbuster or Hollywood Video where you can go get entertainment DVDs. We don't need to spend tax dollars on that. I think we should expand our book collections."
Most libraries, including Loudoun's, have adopted collection development policies that govern the kind of materials the library acquires. In Loudoun, the policy espouses a "freedom to read" philosophy that encourages the acquisition of materials for "everyone within the community," said Douglas Henderson, the system's director.
"It's not our goal to have material that's appropriate only for kids 13 and under," Henderson said.
He noted that the county prohibits the lending of R-rated DVDs to minors. And he said that of the $1.8 million spent annually on acquisitions -- including books, databases, magazines and audio books -- only about $30,000 goes toward DVDs. Titles are chosen for their literary, cultural and educational value, he said.
Henderson also said he knows of no complaints from patrons about the R-rated titles in the collection.
With rain falling and swimming pools closed, the DVD aisles at the Ashburn branch in eastern Loudoun were teeming with children and their moms -- and R-rated movies were not on the agenda.
Still, even patrons who stick to the children's aisle said they have no trouble with the availability of R-rated movies. Tracie Berry, 39, of Ashburn Village was browsing for a DVD with her two children, ages 8 and 6, for the family road trip to Lake Anna.
"If they're watching who's taking them out," she said, "I'm okay with it."