Huntington Beach will seek to stop children from accessing library books city deems obscene or pornographic

Mayor Pro Tem Gracey Van Der Mark, center, listens to public comments during the Huntington Beach City Council meeting.
Mayor Pro Tem Gracey Van Der Mark, center, listens to public comments during the Huntington Beach City Council meeting on Tuesday.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Should politicians be involved in determining what is appropriate for school-aged children at public libraries?

Many who attended Tuesday night’s Huntington Beach City Council meeting said no. But after nearly six hours of contentious public comments, the panel voted 4-3 to support Mayor Pro Tem Gracey Van Der Mark’s agenda item seeking to make books deemed obscene and/or pornographic unavailable to children.

The vote was taken at about 1 a.m. Wednesday, after more than 100 residents weighed in on the issue in public comments that lasted until minutes before midnight. There were also more than 600 emails received, City Clerk Robin Estanislau said, with a review showing a majority of correspondence was against the item.


Two overflow rooms were packed for the meeting, as others watched from the lobby of City Hall. Mayor Tony Strickland allowed everyone the customary three minutes of speaking time.

Strickland, Casey McKeon and Pat Burns voted along with Van Der Mark to support the item. Councilman Dan Kalmick and Councilwomen Natalie Moser and Rhonda Bolton voted against, in what has been a very common vote in the months since the conservative majority was sworn in last December.

Two community members who oppose Mayor Pro Tem Gracey Van Der Mark's agenda item, and one who is for it, stand side by side.
Two community members who oppose Mayor Pro Tem Gracey Van Der Mark’s agenda item, and one who is for it, stand side by side during Tuesday night’s meeting.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Van Der Mark reiterated several times during debate of the item that she was not calling for a ban on books but restricting children’s access to them in the Huntington Beach Public Library system without adult supervision. Her presentation included censored versions of images and passages available in several books. She also read from a few selections, including “Gender Queer,” “Grandad’s Pride” and “The V-Word: True Stories about First-Time Sex.”

“Parents, check these books out,” Van Der Mark said. “If this is what you want for your kids, go for it, but a lot of parents don’t know this material is in these books. A lot of parents don’t know these books are in the library. I know this, because I’ve been doing this for six years ... These [proposed restrictions] are safeguards to protect our kids.”

Kalmick argued that he believed the recommended action did constitute a ban.

“Making something unavailable to someone is a synonym for banning it,” he said. “I think all of the issues that were brought up by the mayor pro tem have been solved by using the existing process. I have a 4-year-old who I have now taken to all but one of the public libraries in this city, and I don’t let her out of my sight when she’s there because she’s 4. She also can’t read, so ... we’re confusing the term child with young adult and adolescent and teenager in this conversation.”

In the 1973 case Miller v. California, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the prosecution of a California publisher for the distribution of obscene materials. The three-pronged Miller test remains a guideline for determining if something meets the federal standard of being called obscene, and thus not protected under the 1st Amendment right of free speech.

Joanne Abuqartoumy speaks in support of an agenda item that would filter out some books deemed obscene or pornographic.
Joanne Abuqartoumy speaks in support of an agenda item that would filter out some books deemed obscene or pornographic at Tuesday night’s meeting.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Under Van Der Mark’s item, City Manager Al Zelinka will work with City Atty. Michael Gates, returning this September with options for stopping minors from viewing obscene and/or pornographic books or materials at public libraries. The item states that Gates would analyze and evaluate the books to see if they are protected by the 1st Amendment.

Strickland said a system could be comparable to the Motion Picture Assn. movie rating system of “G” through “R” and “NC-17.”

Bolton, an attorney, warned that passage of the item could open the city up to litigation.

“There’s safeguards in the system against obscenity at every step,” she said. “That’s just the way the book business works ... and that is the way the 1st Amendment works. The default is, the government doesn’t get involved in this. The parents decide.”

The Huntington Beach Public Library system does have a system in place for a review process if a patron believes a book is inappropriately categorized. Acting director of community and library services Ashley Wysocki said during the meeting it has been requested just five times in the last five years.

One of those five review requests was made by Van Der Mark in 2020, and it was successful in moving “Gender Queer: A Memoir” to the adult section of the library.

Former Huntington Beach Mayor Kim Carr holds a sign from the LGBTQ Center OC during Tuesday night's City Council meeting.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

“Whether it is a sticker on the book that lets the parents know it’s sexually graphic, whether it’s a section — whatever it is — we are open to any ideas,” Van Der Mark said. “I just don’t understand why anybody has a problem with warning parents that some of this material is in these books.”

But Moser said these suggestions constituted government restrictions on speech, in violation of the 1st Amendment.

“Book banning sets a dangerous precedent,” Moser said. “Once censorship is introduced, it becomes easier to justify the restriction of other materials based on subjective criteria or personal preferences. This slippery slope can undermine the principles of intellectual freedom and potentially lead to further censorship.”

Some public speakers said Van Der Mark was taking passages from the books out of context. Others called her idea fascist and compared what they saw as a book ban to what happened in Nazi Germany during the 1930s.

“For the sake of Huntington Beach, quit acting like junior high schoolyard bullies,” said Brenda Glim, the first public speaker of the night. “Stay in your freaking lane and work on the city budget, homelessness, crime and potholes. Let the career experts do their job that they were hired to do. Most especially, keep your unintelligent, lack of knowledge, power grabbing, pandering, showboating paws off our library.”

Huntington Beach City Atty. Michael Gates looks into a full gallery section at Tuesday night's City Council meeting.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Author Elana K. Arnold, a former Surf City resident who now lives in Long Beach, was another public speaker. She said she is the second-most banned author in the United States, according to PEN America, with young adult novels that mostly focus on stories that explore being female, including misogyny and rape culture.

“When we ban books, we are declaring certain people to be unacceptable,” she said. “When we ban books, we shut down conversation. When we ban books, the bullies win.”

PEN America Los Angeles director Allison Lee released a statement Wednesday saying she was disappointed in the City Council’s vote.

“In this case, the council voted along party lines to endorse this censorious idea, which flies in the face of our constitution, despite overwhelming community objection,” Lee said in a statement. “We stand with the Huntington librarians and all who voiced opposition to the growing effort to ban books and suppress ideas, which continues to take new forms.”

Earlier Tuesday, prior to the vote, state Sen. Dave Min, a Democrat, released a statement that the agenda item was deeply concerning and against the country’s tradition of free speech. A section of Huntington Beach falls into Min’s senatorial district.

Heidi Vea, however, argued during public comments that liberals and progressives, despite what they might say, actually hate free speech.

“I’ve personally been accused of engaging in the leftist label ‘hate speech,’” she said. “It seems that people are able to make up labels willy-nilly and then claim moral authority because of those labels. So, I label your books indoctrination speech, grooming speech, inappropriate for children speech.”

An audience member holds a sign in opposition to Mayor Pro Tem Gracey Van Der Mark's agenda item at Tuesday night's meeting.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Due to the length of Tuesday night’s meeting, discussion of adopting a budget for fiscal year 2023-24 was delayed until a special meeting set for Monday night.

Kalmick said the budget is expected to include library cuts, including possible branch closures.

That’s further disappointing news to the handful of librarians who spoke Tuesday night. Alicia Tan, a recent Los Alamitos High graduate, is working as a summer intern for the Huntington Beach Public Library and plans to go to become a librarian.

“While ‘Gender Queer’ does contain illustrations with nudity and sex, the true crux and meaning of the novel is a coming-of-age story about a nonbinary and asexual teenager,” Tan said. “Why are we trying to stop teenagers from reading stories about teenagers?”