Education or advocacy? NOW sex-ed exhibit spawns library controversy

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Some critics found the Charlottesville NOW display in the Central Library too pro-choice and unsuitable for children. Staff photo. Some critics found the Charlottesville NOW display in the Central Library too pro-choice and unsuitable for children. Staff photo.

The display case near the entrance of the Central Library holding a coat-hanger necklace, birth control pills and condoms had gone unremarked upon since it went up April 1. Three weeks later, it captured the attention of a local library user who said it was inappropriate for children and advocated abortion in a publicly funded area. By April 27, radio host Rob Schilling blogged about it with the headline, “Sick city: Charlottesville library’s vile kiddie sex and abortion fest.”

The controversy began when Albemarle resident Mike Powers, a frequent flyer at the Jefferson Madison Regional Library who said his family has checked out over 3,600 books since 2005, spotted the “My body, my choice” display case. He sent an e-mail to the JMRL board of trustees on April 24 and said that while he was glad the sexual education book in the display case was part of the library’s collection, he didn’t want his 9-year-old to see the page it was opened to with “explicit discussions of female genital anatomy and masturbation.”

Of greater concern, said Powers, was that the taxpayer-funded library was used as a “platform for political advocacy.” Powers said the buttons that said “Keep abortion legal” were not balanced by those that said “Choose life” or “Equal rights for unborn women.”

Library board member Gary Grant, who sits on its policy committee, had not seen the exhibit before receiving Powers’ e-mail, and he went over to check it out Monday, April 27, before the monthly board meeting. Library policy has seven requirements a display must meet. “In my opinion, this display only met four of them,” he said.

On the age-appropriate issue, Grant noted the same unidentified, open book Powers objected to with the sentence, “It can take patience and practice to get to know your clitoris.” Grant also felt six condom wrappers that had messages like “Sweet One,” “Two Become One” and “One at a Time Please” were not suitable for all ages.

It would have been very easy to close that one book and take the condoms and turn them over, said Grant. “I’m no prude and I think it’s funny,” he said, “but I don’t think it has a place in the library display.”

Grant agreed with Powers that the issues presented in the exhibit did not comply with library policy that they be done in a “balanced” and “equal manner.” There was no information about abstinence education or adoption as an option to unwanted pregnancies, he said.

The display also violated the library’s prohibition on advertising, said Grant, with cards for the Blue Ridge Abortion Assistance Fund, the Shelter for Help in Emergency and BEDSIDER.ORG, an online birth control support network operated by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancies.

Kobby Hoffman, president of Charlottesville NOW, which sponsored the display and has done so the past few years on topics like equal rights and sexual assault, objected to calling information about a shelter for abused women advertising. “We see it as information,” she said. “People consider these service organizations.”

Charlottesville NOW fired back at critics with a press release defending the exhibit, pointing out the display case was too high for most children to see and not near the children’s section of the library. “Our question to you is, what are you going to say when your children ask questions about sex and reproduction?” said the statement. “Ignore them? The many books in our exhibit will help you answer these questions as your children grow and need information.“

The organization also disputed the criticism that the display was one-sided and said it emphasized choice. “It is also your choice to turn and walk away from the information,” said the statement.  “No one makes you look! But thanks for giving us so much publicity!”

Abstention and adoption are in the books from the library that were included in the display, said Hoffman. “I didn’t try to leave anything out,” she said. Teen development and pregnancy “are real issues our society tries to deal with.”

Hoffman said she was surprised by the reaction to the display. “It’s factual information,” she said. “Why would you want to censor it? I don’t understand.”

Powers said he thinks the library policy is sound, and that there was a “glitch” with how the Charlottesville NOW exhibit was implemented.

Jefferson Madison Regional Library Director John Halliday said the main purpose of such exhibits is to promote library materials and services. “The library is a place for free expression,” he said. “We don’t shy away from presenting opposing viewpoints.”

Added Halliday, “Almost everyone can find something offensive in a public library.”

As for the fate of the briefly controversial NOW exhibit, it was scheduled to be taken down April 30 anyway, and the library policy committee will review its policy at its June meeting, although Grant said he wished the committee had met sooner about the display.

The next trustees meeting is May 18, and the public can comment at the beginning of every meeting.

Correction: John Halliday’s name was misspelled in the original version of this story.