BY SARA PAGONES | Staff writer
A private law firm will represent the St. Tammany Parish public library system in any cases where the system is accused of violating state obscenity laws following 22nd Judicial District Attorney Warren Montgomery's decision to recuse his office on that issue.
The Library Board of Control voted Tuesday to hire the firm Smith & Fawer, for no more than $15,000, to provide legal advice concerning any alleged violations of La. R.S. 14:91:11 -- a law that broadly prohibits exhibiting harmful material to minors -- and to advise the board on the handling of complaints about books and other materials as well as any potential changes in policy or procedure.
The board's vote follows months of vocal criticism about books some claim are sexually explicit as well as accusations that pornographic material is available to children. Some people have also objected to books dealing with LGBTQ themes.
They have packed recent meetings, sometimes bearing signs, and have filed complaints -- called statements of concern --- about 150 books. Those books range from children's picture books to young adult and adult fiction and non-fiction titles. The Library Board decided last month to keep any challenged books behind the counter -- but still available upon request -- while they are under staff review.
Library critics have seized on the state obscenity law, and at least one law enforcement agency in St. Tammany Parish has received a complaint.
But the board's decision to lawyer up came under fire Tuesday from some of those critics, who said that the public shouldn't have to foot the bill.
"If you haven't done anything wrong as far as that law about pornography and letting our children see it, then why do you have to have legal counsel," audience member Fran Smith asked. "Also, why are we paying for that, because I'm sure the citizens of this parish are paying for that when we don't agree with what you're doing."
But others in the audience defended the step, while raising some questions about Montgomery's recusal.
"The reason we have to pay for a lawyer is because the DA, whose job it is to do this, recused himself," Slidell resident Sonnet Ireland said, calling the hiring of outside counsel necessary and prudent to protect the library and parish from any lawsuits.
"As a taxpayer, a voter and a library patron I prefer my tax dollars be spent on preventative consultation rather than on lengthy court battles," she said.
Roxanne Newman, a Mandeville resident, defended hiring a lawyer, saying that the library board has to defend itself. "You have been put in this position by the very people who are here tonight, having been accused of unspeakable things," she said, adding that the parish has the responsibility to defend employees acting within the course and scope of their jobs.
Assistant District Attorney Emily Couvillion, who was at the meeting in her capacity as legal advisor, said she will continue to advise the library board. But Montgomery had to recuse the office from advising the board on the state obscenity law because he is the one to receive criminal complaints.
"In order to prevent a conflict of interest, the DA has recused himself and advised the Library Board to seek special counsel," she said.