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Notebook Law

Krieg Barrie

(Krieg Barrie)

Law

Library fines—gone with the wind?

Many libraries have stopped charging for overdue books

The antechamber of the Mesquite Library in Phoenix, Ariz., is full of natural light and potted palms. Sporting a ball cap, Valerie Jones strides through, but turns back to give her opinion on library fines. Would a library without overdue book fines help her? “Yes!” 

Jones has a 6-year-old son who checks out 20 to 30 books at a time. She encourages his appetite, but when it’s time to return the books, it’s impossible to find them all. Whatever she doesn’t return incurs a fine. The fines build up, her library account is blocked, and she can only afford to pay in installments. The result: Her son stops checking out books.

Starting in November, this will no longer be a problem. The “All Fines Forgiven” initiative at Phoenix Public Library branches such as Mesquite will remove daily fines for overdue books and forgive existing balances. Patrons still have to pay a replacement fee after 50 days, but if they return the book, the fee is waived.

Phoenix isn’t the first city to end library fines, but it is the biggest so far. About 200 other library systems in the United States have become fine-free. In January, the American Library Association passed a resolution encouraging all libraries to do so.

Eliminating fines evokes a mixed response from patrons. Some, like Jones, welcome the idea. Others, mostly older patrons, worry people will become irresponsible and stop returning books. (Nobody seems to anticipate personally becoming the problem.)

Phoenix is the county seat of Maricopa County, and the county library system, which went fine-free in May, reports no problems with book hoarders yet. Other libraries generally report that removing fines actually increases circulation. Their position: People recognize the value of a library, are responsible, and understand they are borrowing.

Phoenix Public Library spokeswoman Lee Franklin says fines disproportionately affect low-income households and those without books. She has seen parents who bring children to the library to read but tell them, “We can’t take that home.” She hopes removing a potential financial barrier will make books more accessible.

Yolanda J., who works at a Phoenix branch in a low-income area, agrees: Patrons approach her desk to ask what fines they owe. Often when they hear their balance, they turn around and leave. But patron Doyle Magouirk, who wears a gray beard, has a different perspective: When he goes overdue, he keeps the book until he accrues a large fine. When he gets his monthly paycheck, he pays his fines: “That’s how I donate to the library.” Right now he owes $11.50 and intends to pay before the fine is forgiven.

Carol Romanchuk is happy to see fines disappear because she’s always late, and the money doesn’t directly benefit the library: “I used to think it went toward new books, but then I learned it just went to the general fund, so what’s the point?”

Romanchuk is right. Phoenix Public Library currently collects about $200,000 a year for overdue books, money that goes into the city’s general fund. The Maricopa County library system, funded by property taxes, already has a program to help municipal libraries. When Phoenix joins the fine-free movement, the county will supply the city’s libraries an additional $170,000. So, since money in the city general fund may not return to the library system, the new policy might help it financially.

Still, the next time politicians propose raising taxes to help libraries, voters will know they’ve already given up one revenue source.

—Victoria Johnson is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute mid-career course

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Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Hannah Strege (right) stands next to U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany at a news conference in 2006. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Law

A chance at life

Embryo adoptions are increasingly popular thanks in part to a government grant created by an unlikely senator

The first “snowflake baby” was born in 1998. Hannah Strege, conceived in a petri dish and placed into frozen storage for two years, had been implanted as an embryo into the womb of Marlene Strege. The two were not biologically related, but Marlene had chosen to adopt this embryo with the help of Nightlight Christian Adoptions, a group that coined the term “snowflake babies” to describe the more than 100,000 frozen embryos then stored at fertility clinics across the United States. American couples had created the embryos with the help of in vitro fertilization: Those parents would typically choose to implant, discard, or donate the embryos to stem cell research.

When Hannah was born, embryonic stem cell research was a hot topic in Washington. Advocates anticipated cures for cancer and Alzheimer’s, but opponents argued that if life begins at conception, research that destroys human embryos should be off limits. Debate raged in Congress, and in August 2001 President George W. Bush said federally funded researchers could use existing embryonic stem cell lines but not new ones. The 9/11 attacks soon tore the country’s focus away from stem cell research.

In December 2001, Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, a pro-abortion Republican at the time, created a $1 million grant to raise public awareness of embryo adoption. He added the funding to a Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) spending bill at the last minute, after months of loudly supporting research using embryos. “He was an unlikely person to be adding [the grant],” former Nightlight President Ron Stoddart recalled. But pro-life groups were arguing more people would donate their embryos to adoption if they only knew they could. Specter told the Associated Press the grant would be a test: “Let us try to find people who will adopt embryos and take the necessary steps.” Stoddart said he suspected that if interested families did not come forward, Specter would have kept pushing for embryonic stem cell research. 

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Ramin Parsa (Handout)

Law

‘It’s a free country’

Common sense, common grace—in one case

One well-publicized case ended this month in a slight win for religious liberty and freedom of speech. The City of Bloomington, Minn., gave up on its case against Ramin Parsa and agreed not to pursue prosecution further—and the resolution offers some lessons for others hit by clampdowns.

The legal battle began on Aug. 25 when Parsa, a pastor from Los Angeles, was strolling The Mall of America, a huge enterprise that bills itself as a tourist destination for 40 million people annually from around the world. Enrique Flores, a Minnesota church elder, and Flores’ 14-year-old son were with him.

Parsa, 33, says two Somali women approached the threesome at 8:30 p.m., struck up a conversation, and asked if Parsa was a Muslim. When he said he used to be but was now a Christian, the women asked him to explain. So Parsa told them how he converted to Christianity in Iran, survived stabbing by a Muslim, escaped to Turkey, and in 2008 gained admission to the United States as a Christian refugee. He is now a U.S. citizen.

Parsa and Flores both say the women were eager to talk, but a third woman overheard the conversation and asked Parsa to shut up. When he said he was just answering questions, the third woman shouted that he was harassing them and left to find a security guard, who arrived and told Parsa he couldn’t solicit at the mall. Parsa said he was merely answering questions during a private conversation.

The guard walked away. Parsa and his friends went to a nearby Starbucks. When they left the coffee shop, three security guards stopped them. According to the police report, mall security asked a family at Starbucks what Parsa had been talking about with them, and the family members said: religion. The guards told Parsa the mall is private property and told him to leave. Parsa said he had a right to be there. The guards said Parsa remarked, “It’s a free country,” and threatened to sue the mall. Two more guards arrived.

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