Dismissal of Wisconsin Board Members Draws National Censure

Dismissal of Wisconsin Board Members Draws National Censure

The American Library Association has joined publishing and free-speech groups in condemning the West Bend, Wisconsin, common council for not reappointing four library board members after they failed to act on a citizens group’s call to restrict the availability of sexually explicit books. At its April 21 meeting, the council voted 5–3 to reject Mayor Kristine Deiss’s recommendation to reappoint the four library board members whose terms were concluding: Mary Reilly-Kliss, Tom Fitz, James Pouros, and Alderman Nick Dobberstein.

Reilly-Kliss told American Libraries that she found the council’s action particularly unfair because the concerns of West Bend residents Jim and Ginny Maziarka and their group West Bend Citizens for Safe Libraries “never formally got to the board level” in the request for reconsideration process. Reilly-Kliss said that the original request for reconsideration, which was submitted February 7, was the removal of the link to the library’s “Over the Rainbow” list of recommended young-adults titles about gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered life. By March, the Maziarkas were seeking the relocation of some of the listed books to the adult book section; they specifically objected to The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephan Chbosky, The Geography Club by Brent Hartinger, and Deal With It! A Whole New Approach to Your Body, Brain, and Life as a gURL by Esther Drill. A petition with 443 signatures also asked the board to balance its collection with books “affirming traditional heterosexual perspectives” that are faith-based or written by “ex-gay” authors, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported March 31.

According to Reilly-Kliss, common council members accused trustees of “stonewalling” because they had not removed the contested titles. Alderman Terry Vrana asserted that the trustees had not served community interests because of “their ideology,” adding that he was “concerned about the morality of this city.” Reilly-Kliss went on to say that when she approached Vrana privately after the meeting to explain the library’s reconsideration process, he stated, “I don’t care about your policy. I want those books off the shelves.”

Opposition to the Maziarkas’s challenge included the formation of West Bend Parents for Free Speech by local resident Mary Hanrahan, who claims on her website to have collected 200 signatures in two hours on April 21. “We are dismayed by and deeply concerned about these developments,” said ALA President Jim Rettig April 29. “Libraries connect people and ideas, by providing access to a diverse array of information to meet the needs of everyone in the community. Whatever their personal beliefs, library board members have an obligation to support this unique role of the public library.”

That same day, Deborah Caldwell-Stone, acting director of ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, wrote council members that, just as library board members must put aside their personal views in support of the library’s mission, “the Common Council has an obligation to distinguish between personal beliefs and the preservation of the public library’s duty to represent the diversity of people, opinions, and ideas found in West Bend, Wisconsin,” and urged reconsideration of the decision to deny reappointment to the trustees.

One day earlier, several other free-speech groups also wrote to the common council. The National Coalition against Censorship, the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, PEN American Center, and the Association of American Publishers said that by denying the trustees another term, the council “is imposing its opinions on the rest of the community, threatening free speech in West Bend.” The letter (PDF file) concluded, “By keeping the challenged books in the young adults section, you will demonstrate respect for your patrons and their choices, for the professionalism of the librarians who serve the reading public, and for the First Amendment and its central role in a pluralistic, democratic society.”

Posted on May 4, 2009.