by Marion Marks
Little Free Libraries (LFL) are a “Hot Button” topic on the agenda of the Shreveport City Council meeting Tuesday (3 pm, 505 Travis Street). The City Council, led by Jeff Everson, hopes to close a chapter of community uproar that the national media attention brought fire on the Metropolitan Planning Commission’s (MPC) violation citation (CASE # ZVC1400245 zoned: R-1H) against Frederick and Teresa Edgerton for operating a LFL. Unfortunately, Resolution 19 in current form does not solve the problem. Rather, it raises numerous questions, delays a lasting decision, and provides the possibility that LFLs could be banned in the future.
To Councilman Everson’s credit, when he learned of the MPC cease and desist letter to the Edgertons, he began working immediately to assist his constituents and resolve the existing problem. Unfortunately, it appears his work, based on the information that I believe was presented by the MPC to the general public, may fall short of resolving the real issues. In his interview on The Talk of the Town with Tom Page, Everson reiterates the MPC’s repeated pronouncements that the LFL in question and LFLs in Shreveport do not conform to the current ordinance. However, everyone should keep in mind that these city ordinances are nearly 60 years old.
The citation letter, dated January 27th, reads: “An inspection of the above-subject location revealed that you are in violation Section 106-236 of the City of Shreveport Zoning Code of Ordinances which does not allow any commercial activity in a R-1H [residential] district.” It was known at the time that a single, anonymous complaint had been made against the Edgertons, which lead to the citation. What was not known until the Shreveport Times published the findings of a public records request from the MPC was that the original anonymous complaint was made against a “rental box.” [link to article needed] Had Councilman Everson been fully briefed, he would have been able to see that Section 106-236 of the City of Shreveport Zoning Code of Ordinances does not apply to Little Free Libraries. They are not rental boxes, they are not commercial enterprises. Therefore, they are not subject to existing city ordinances.
As can be seen on the Little Free Library of Shreveport FaceBook page, there is strong opposition to the MPC’s application of the ordinance. As citizens have contemplated, discussed, and researched the LFL city ordinance issue, none seem willing to accept the MPC/Alan Clarke interpretation of city code.
How diligent had been the MPC’s inspection? It’s obvious to laymen that something free cannot, by definition, be commercial. In the early days of the controversy, Alan Clarke stated that a primary issue with the LFL was the use of the word “library.” Because it was a library, it was a commercial enterprise. Don’t tell public libraries this; they are supported by taxes and not free enterprise!
Discourse in social media addressed a more common sense approach to resolving the issue: Allow LFLs in Shreveport and handle any complaint using other means available to the MPC. Showing better judgement by speaking with the resident concerning any ancillary issues, such as times when the LFL is being used, crowd size, noise complaints, or other issues might allow the complaint to resolve itself. The current discussion of a new guideline for the zoning code is little more than a political tourniquet.
In the days before the MPC meeting of February 4th, one MPC member recommended that a local restaurateur who expressed interest in placing a LFL in front of the commercial restaurant not do so at the present time. Certainly other Shreveporters have expressed more than a passing interest in establishing more LFLs, and these are only the ones I know who have presented the concept and questioned how they would be received.
It was not until the Shreveport Times received a public records request from the MPC that the public learned that the original anonymous complaint was made against a “rental box!” This error alone is grounds for the the MPC to pull the citation and allow the Edgertons to operate their LFL.
The Shreveport Times’ reporter, Alexandria Burns, consulted Paul Baier, a First Amendment scholar at LSU’s Paul M. Hebert Law Center. Article title is “First Amendment issues surface in Little Free Library case.”
Burns paraphrases Baiel as saying that “the application of the law clashes with the First Amendment. Prohibiting the structure, in turn, prohibits activity that is constitutionally protected and restricts how citizens exchange information, he said.” Baiel clearly stated, “I think if the ordinance were challenged, it would be declared unconstitutional.”
It is interesting that the violation citation sent to the Edgertons pronounced that if the Edgertons “failure to bring this violation into compliance will result in the matter being referred to the Office of the City Attorney for further action.” Would this be the same city attorney who vetted Everson’s resolution? Is this the same person who will hear any future complaints made against LFLs? I wonder if the city would go so far is to bring legal action against citizens who promote LFLs.
Mayor Ollie Tyler has been silent on the LFL issue. Politically, this has been one wise decision made during this controversy. Most citizens feel Tyler must support LFLs given her background in education. She has chosen to be the Grand Marshall of the Highland Mardi Gras Parade, yet. it’s strange she has not chose to ride to the rescue of LFLs.
Tyler, nor anyone within her office has spoken out concerning the MPC statements February 4th that appear to smear the First Amendment. If accurately inferred, Shreveport LFLs should be regulated so that “If somebody has one those looks dilapidate or somebody puts inappropriate material so a child can get a hold of it. We’ve got to make sure we protect and the ordinances are in place to protect the public(KTBS) [Emphasis Added].” Just 5 days before, Lea Desmarteau, appointed citizen head of Shreveport MPC Board, wrote on Facebook, “I have directed our staff to research other cities that have LFL to assess modifications of our current ordinances to allow Mr. and Mrs. Edgerton’s LFL, and others, to exist.” The MPC has been quiet about information learned from their research, nor has it spoken about modifications to ordinances, allowing Councilman Everson to attempt to clean up any public relations mess. Surely the MPC did not find a city where the government regulates content of LFLs. Perhaps MPC members and staff should familiarize themselves with the American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights, which includes: “III. Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment.” Even if they are little.
Desmarteau told reporters that the public should follow code to maintain order, yet has complained—and reasonably so—that ordinances are 60 years old. Now the opportunity exists for the MPC to come to the twenty-first century party. Technology, social media, and open dialogue demand participation by governing entities in the change that exists and often be part of making change.
The MPC, City Council, Mayor and all parties need to join the ride, like the calvary, to embrace needed change. People should not be afraid of their governments, rather governments probably should fear their people! As the Shreveport’s LFL issue continues to garner additional national attention, the black eye Shreveport suffers appears to be gaining a serious infection. It’s time to free Little Free Libraries in Shreveport and support reading and the public exchange of information. Who knows, LFLs may soon be free web hot-spots! We might really see Shreveport embrace a little change.