Last June, at the advent of an historic hurricane season, Hillsborough County confirmed Renée Lee as its new attorney. Almost exactly a year later, a 5-1 vote by the county's board of commissioners stirred up another kind of trouble. In this interview, Lee responds to questions about the June 15 vote to prohibit the "acknowledgment, promotion and participation of gay pride events" - and its ramifications.
Weekly Planet: What do you think of the June 15 vote and the public response since then?
Lee: I think it caught us all off guard. It seemed rather benign when they passed it. I don't think anyone expected the statewide and the countrywide reaction to it. [There's the] New York Times, people have called from Europe, they have called from everywhere, so, yes, I think the response has been surprising … . I know [Commissioner Ronda] Storms' office has been overwhelmed by this.
Note: Lee does not think this board will revisit its decision. However, if they did, their next chance to do so would be the July 20 board meeting.
WP: Does this policy mean that books by gay authors can be purchased by county libraries in the future?
Lee: I would say yes. You know I'm reading this [policy] very narrowly because the board said "gay pride" events. So I would say yes. Buying a book, yes, I think you could.
WP: Can books containing gay/lesbian characters - by non-gay authors - be purchased in the future?
Lee: If I were applying the policy I would say, yes, you can buy the book.
WP: New books are often set aside for display. Will new books containing gay fictional or non-fictional characters be an exception - and not put up for display?
Lee: I think to answer that question I would have to look at the totality of the circumstance. If it were in promotion of the gay pride events [that would violate it].
WP: What do you interpret "gay pride" to mean?
Lee: All of these questions will be in effect situational, [based] in certain circumstances. Those are the things we're going to have to look at - the who, what, where, when, why.
WP: Many people are worried that Hillsborough County librarians will begin to self-censor themselves and their libraries. Will your office send out a memo to clarify the board's policy?
Lee: No. I don't know if Pat Bean [the county administrator] will. We don't plan to publish anything. The record is clear.
* Note: Pat Bean said by phone that her office will release a copy of the board policy to every department once the language is complete. "That's our standard practice any time we have a new policy," Bean said.
WP: What if a librarian is confused about the policy?
Lee: She's going to have to call and tell us a fact situation. Anyone who's having a fact situation will have to check with the county administrator and the county attorney's office and see if this policy applies … .We have to review these issues on a case by case basis. If something comes up with respect to gay pride, we will review that … . I don't think that you can address every scenario.
WP: The Stonewall riots were a monumental event for gays and lesbians and many books have been written about the subject, which could be interpreted as "gay pride" books. Can existing gay pride books remain on library shelves?
Lee: I don't think that the intent was to censor books. I think it was to prohibit the acknowledgment, promotion and participation of gay pride events.
WP: You were reported as saying that the June 15 decision was "not a constitutional breach … . This is not a free speech issue." How is this not a free speech issue?
Lee: Because the public has appointed the board of county commissioners as the body who speaks for the government. The government has broad discretion on how it spends money on the promotion of events and they [the board] have chosen not to acknowledge, promote or participate in gay pride events.
WP: Often there are spaces in libraries where people can post meetings and general flyers. Could a gay-related flyer be posted under the new policy?
Lee: This policy does not address that.
WP: Have any county employees resigned because of this decision?
Lee: No resignations. But this is a large organization and you know that there are gay employees in the work force. There have been some murmurings of displeasure about this policy.
WP: What if gay employees have a pink triangle, say stuck to a folder in their office. Is that a violation of board policy?
Lee: No, if it doesn't violate dress code. But you couldn't pass out triangles … . This is a county policy and it does not prohibit any individual from doing what they would normally do. This is simply that no action of the county should be in furtherance of acknowledging, promoting or participating gay pride events.