It requires no animus against homosexuals for someone to argue the “Drag Queen Story Hour” scheduled for Sept. 8 at the Ben May Memorial Library shouldn’t take place. Objectors should continue making reasoned, respectful efforts to cancel it.
The legal case for blocking the reading is slightly stronger than most people understand. Legalities aside, the principled arguments for objecting are substantial — as we’ll discuss momentarily.
Let’s start with the legal issues. The First Amendment wonderfully protects free speech and assembly; exceptions are, wisely, quite narrow. But it’s beyond dispute that constitutional freedoms do not fully extend to children — a public school, for example, can restrict speech of a sexual nature — nor to those who would speak to children.
The latter restrictions, it must be acknowledged, are very slim. But two 1982 Supreme Court cases (Globe Newspaper v. Superior Court, Norfolk, and New York v. Ferber, respectively) held that “[T]he … interest [of] safeguarding the physical and psychological well-being of a minor … is a compelling one” and “we have sustained legislation aimed at protecting the physical and emotional well-being of youth even when the laws have operated in the sensitive area of constitutionally protected rights.”
(Relatedly, the high court ruled in 2003’s U.S. v. American Library Association that governments providing funding to libraries may indeed place content-based restrictions on such funding, and that libraries themselves “must have broad discretion to decide what material to provide to their patrons.”)
True, it’s unlikely the mere fact of a man wearing women’s clothing while reading gay-parent-themed books to children would trigger concerns legally obvious enough for courts to let local government block the event. But those three cases show it is not absurd for local authorities to explore whether legal avenues exist.
Not to “equate” the following examples with the drag queen event, but for illustrative purposes, to show that there are times when city officials would surely cite child-protection concerns as reason to limit the First Amendment, consider two scenarios. If a group wanting Stormy Daniels dressed as a Playboy bunny to read steamy excerpts from “Fifty Shades of Grey” to 5-year-olds, local officials would search for some way to cancel the event. The same would apply if someone in blackface, with obviously racist intent, proposed to read “Little Black Sambo” to toddlers.
The Mobile Public Library’s own rules contain a sizable loophole for officials’ exercise of judgment, listing three “exclusions” for its open-door policy, including this: “Meetings which may interfere with the function of the library because of noise or any other factor are not allowed.” Local officials, with justification, could say the reader in blackface would “interfere with the function of the library.”
All that said, legality isn’t the biggest issue here (other than to suggest that city officials, by publicly exploring legal options, could gain leverage to persuade the drag queens to cease and desist). What’s more important is the impropriety involved.
The adjudgment of impropriety is not dependent on the assumed homosexuality of the drag queen “reader.” Gay or straight, it is improper, indeed arguably immoral, to hijack a public forum to confront young children with matters of sex and sexuality. Remember, this event is specifically aimed at children ages 3 to 8. Whatever children show up, even if (presumably) accompanied by parents, this isn’t just a case of nice volunteers wanting to read to children to promote literacy. These are people openly advertising their reading as a way to promote, to the children, a particular agenda, both via the readers’ outfits and their choice of gay-themed books.
The children aren’t so much beneficiaries as targets — here, for sex- and sexuality-related messages any community might want to exclude from the public square. From a standpoint of propriety if not law, there are such things as “community standards” that reasonable societies should observe and respect.
Yes, for fear of tyranny, the state rightly may have no enforcement mechanism for these standards. Yet in a strong civil society, the standards will be policed via nonviolent community pressure married, even more importantly, to self-restraint. Elected officials, meanwhile, should not only publicly examine their (limited) legal options to force such an event’s cancellation, but — with respectful and constructive tones, without vitriol or slander — should also use their civic pulpits to urge the drag queens to reconsider. The queens should be told they aren’t morally welcome to use Mobile’s children as pawns, in public venues, for social and political games. Find private homes, please.
An early 20th century stage actress famously said she didn’t care what homosexuals do “so long as they don’t do it in the streets and frighten the horses.” If frightening horses is off limits, then even more off limits should be anything in public, gay or straight, which can confuse or scare innocent children.