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More than 100 people crowded Town Hall last week to voice their opinions on a book that describes the 2007 Petit murders from the perspective of one of the accused perpetrators.
“In The Middle of the Night: The Shocking True Story of a Family Murdered in Cold Blood” by Brian McDonald was released last month and is largely based on jailhouse interviews and correspondence he had with Joshua Komisarjevsky, one of the men charged with the Petit murders. The Cheshire Public Library has ordered two copies of the book, which have yet to arrive, and opponents of the book want it kept off the library’s shelves. Members of the public showed up at the Oct. 19 Library Advisory Board meeting, but the room was too small to handle the crowd. The meeting was pushed back until Oct. 22 and was held in Town Hall, where there was standing room only. Comments from both points of view were given for over two hours and focused on two major points: is stopping the book from being stocked on the library’s shelves censorship, or is it common decency?
Judy Grabar said the issue wasn’t about banning the book or censorship.
“There are millions of books out there, it’s a matter of choice what the library puts out,” she said.
Joanne Bailey agreed, saying it is “insulting and sad” that her tax dollars would be used to purchase the book. Kimberly Mack said “decency came above all else” and Dr. William Petit, the lone survivor of the deadly July 2007 home invasion, “needs the support of the town.”
However, not all agreed with the idea of restricting the book at the library. While Martin Cobern did not agree with the material in McDonald’s book and did not plan on reading it, he said that, if the library chose to ban books that were offensive to a particular person or group, the “library shelves would be bare.
“If Dr. Petit and his supporters had merely ignored this book, it would have vanished quickly to the remainder rack alongside the hundreds of other trashy books,” Cobern said. “Instead, we are here this evening before the cameras and notebooks of the press, giving the book free publicity that its publisher could never have bought at any price.”
On the back table of Town Council Chambers, the materials selection policy of the Cheshire Public Library was outlined. The policy, which was approved in October 2007, states that the “library director is ultimately responsible for the selection of materials.” Next to the policy was a stake of typed out flyers that read, “It has nothing to do with censorship, it has everything to do with common decency and respect for the Petit family.”
“This is not a political issue and shame on anyone who thinks it is,” said Leslie Marinaro. “If you insist on putting this garbage on the shelf, can you not wait until after the trial?”
Ann Marie Blake agreed and stated that, if the book had to be purchased, it was best to wait until after the trial for Komisarjevsky and Steven Hayes.
“If it has to be purchased, why not wait?” Blake asked. “This book is contraband and does not belong in our town library.”
Hayes is expected to go to trial in January, while Komisarjevsky isn’t expected to stand trial until January 2011.
Tamara Epstein, a neighbor of the Petit’s on Sorghum Mill Drive, said she “shudders” at the thought of her children seeing the book at the library and being forced to “re-live the horror” of that day.
Patrick Doyle, from the Connecticut office of the American Civil Liberties Union, said banning the book violates the First Amendment and the freedom of the people in Cheshire.
“We are free to choose what we read in the library. If (the book) is censored, we take away that freedom,” Doyle said. “Individuals can make the choice. We cannot take that choice away from them.”
Nancy Stover said First Amendment rights do not protect inflammatory speech and the library has chosen to ban other publications that fall under free speech protections, such as the adult magazine Playboy.
“You will not find Playboy on the shelf next to Good Housekeeping,” Stover said. “That has nothing to do with censorship, it has to do with decency.
Marlena Soble said Harten had to make a tough decision and she applauded her for that. She said that, although she will boycott the book in her personal life, it doesn’t mean that her choice to do so should be taken away from her.
“No one can dictate to me what I can and cannot have access to,” Soble said. “As a private citizen I will boycott the book, but this issue goes much deeper.”
Barbara Cristoff supported Harten, although she said she would never read the book and would be disturbed by anyone who wanted to read it. However, she said, stopping this book from appearing on the shelves started the Town down a “slippery slope” of censorship.
“Some people want to read it and it is not anyone’s right to censor their reading,” Cristoff said. “Book banning never served to benefit society.”
Other members of the public suggested that tax dollars not be used on the book, rather, patrons who wish to read the “In the Middle of the Night” can request it through interlibrary loan.
“This is a bigger deal than we need to make it out to be. Let’s make a stand and not have it on our shelves,” said Keith Trumbo. “If someone wants it, they can request it through the loan. If it’s not on our shelves, it’s a statement for Dr. Petit.”
Library Advisory Board chairwoman Carol DiPietro said the Board would take the comments made at the public hearing and review them for a month. The Board meets again on Nov. 16, where she said it might be possible for them to make a recommendation about the book.
Library Director Ramona Harten said she wasn’t surprised by the response from the public, noting that it is an emotional subject.
However, after the meeting and having time to reflect on her choice, Harten said she stands by her decision.
“I understand there are very emotional issues going on, I absolutely understand that, but I stand by my professional opinion,” Harten said. “When making the decision, emotion needed to be taken out of the equation.”