07 August 2009

Book-banning, new American style

ZUI this article, by Walter Olson, at City Journal:
It’s hard to believe, but true: under a law Congress passed last year aimed at regulating hazards in children’s products, the federal government has now advised that children’s books published before 1985 should not be considered safe and may in many cases be unlawful to sell or distribute. Merchants, thrift stores, and booksellers may be at risk if they sell older volumes, or even give them away, without first subjecting them to testing—at prohibitive expense. Many used-book sellers, consignment stores, Goodwill outlets, and the like have accordingly begun to refuse new donations of pre-1985 volumes, yank existing ones off their shelves, and in some cases discard them en masse.

The problem is the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (CPSIA), passed by Congress last summer after the panic over lead paint on toys from China. Among its other provisions, CPSIA imposed tough new limits on lead in any products intended for use by children aged 12 or under, and made those limits retroactive: that is, goods manufactured before the law passed cannot be sold on the used market (even in garage sales or on eBay) if they don’t conform. The law has hit thrift stores particularly hard, since many children’s products have long included lead-containing (if harmless) components: zippers, snaps, and clasps on garments and backpacks; skateboards, bicycles, and countless other products containing metal alloy; rhinestones and beads in decorations; and so forth. Combine this measure with a new ban (also retroactive) on playthings and child-care articles that contain plastic-softening chemicals known as phthalates, and suddenly tens of millions of commonly encountered children’s items have become unlawful to resell, presumably destined for landfills when their owners discard them. Penalties under the law are strict and can include $100,000 fines and prison time, regardless of whether any child is harmed.


A further question is what to do about public libraries, which daily expose children under 12 to pre-1985 editions of Anne of Green Gables, Beatrix Potter, Baden-Powell’s scouting guides, and other deadly hazards. The blogger Design Loft carefully examines some of the costs of CPSIA-proofing pre-1985 library holdings; they are, not surprisingly, utterly prohibitive. The American Library Association spent months warning about the law’s implications, but its concerns fell on deaf ears in Congress (which, in this week’s stimulus bill, refused to consider an amendment by Republican senator Jim DeMint to reform CPSIA). The ALA now apparently intends to take the position that the law does not apply to libraries unless it hears otherwise. One can hardly blame it for this stance, but it’s far from clear that it will prevail. For one thing, the law bans the “distribution” of forbidden items, whether or not for profit. In addition, most libraries regularly raise money through book sales, and will now need to consider excluding older children’s titles from those sales. One CPSC commissioner, Thomas Moore, has already called for libraries to “sequester” some undefinedly large fraction of pre-1985 books until more is known about their risks.

This is a REALLY bad idea....

H/T to Tam.

1 comment:

Buck said...

My wife sent me a similar email. I have no doubt that there are resellers who are throwing away pre-1985 books, but I'm not sure that's based on anything other than hysteria.

The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 http://www.govtrack.us/congress/billtext.xpd?bill=h110-4040 does not mention books, or 1985.

Yes, the Consumer Products Safety Commission has rule making jurisdiction, and the rule was that books made after 1985 are exempt from testing.

I note that the CPSC web site has no regulatory guidance for books: http://www.cpsc.gov/cgi-bin/regs.aspx

The web page offering guidance is not a legalistic page, but a plain-English summary of some typical items: http://www.cpsc.gov/ABOUT/Cpsia/smbus/retailers.html The row for children's books says OK to sell if after 1985 but makes no mention of pre-1985 books, which implies that the first paragraph holds true.

Finally, the article comes from Overlaywered (a very nice web site, BTW) in Feb 2009. In March 2009 Mr Olson posted some clarifications http://overlawyered.com/2009/03/cpsc-no-we-didnt-ask-libraries-to-pull-pre-1985-books/ saying that '...the commission has neither concluded that the books might be dangerous nor recommended that libraries take any action.'

I, too love books. My wife and I have thousands of them and we are patrons of the local library system as well as thrift shops. We've been telling everyone we know to wait for specific rule making on those older books, and to sell them in good faith.

There's just too much fear of the government these days, and while it is definitely true that we live in a regulatory crazy world, we ought not panic at every story that crosses the news wires. After all, the news people are in business to say shocking things; not necessarily to enlighten us about the actual facts.

Bravo Zulu for an excellent blog and thanks for sticking up for books!