LEANDER PUBLIC LIBRARY

As Leander Council votes no action on library policy, city faces discrimination, censorship allegations

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Editor's note: This is an updated version of the story originally published at around 1 a.m. Friday morning, following the Leander City Council meeting. This update includes clarifications to the process and procedure of the meeting itself as well as additional comments from council and the public.

The Leander Public Library’s future remains uncertain Thursday as the Leander City Council voted to take no action on the City of Leander’s proposed revisions to several library policies. The uncertainty comes as the city faces mounting attention and allegations of censorship and discrimination by national organizations – and even a sitting council member – over the city’s decision to cancel a Drag Queen Story Time, temporarily ban room rentals and outside programs in the wake of the program and subsequently cancel a transgender comic book author’s schedule appear to talk about her work.

The National Coalition Against Censorship wrote a letter saying the library’s recent abrupt cancellation Austin-based comic book author Lilah Sturges despite appearing to meet the city’s own criteria showed it was motivated by viewpoint and gender discrimination.

In exclusive interviews with Hill Country News, several library staff members, and later Council member Christine Sederquist, said they strongly believe the city’s actions were discriminatory and aimed at silencing voices that generate controversy.

Leander Public Information Mike Neu categorically denied the claims Thursday, saying the issue was more a failure of communication by city staff when they tried to explain their intentions to library staff and the public while simultaneously trying to draft new policies in an area they haven’t had to deal with as city before now.

“It certainly isn’t our intention to discriminate against any viewpoints,” Neu said.

Separately, even the city’s proposed revisions to library policies aimed at addressing the controversies received a rebuke from multiple national organizations ahead of the council meeting.

In a letter Thursday from the American Civil Liberties Union, the city was warned that one of the proposed changes – which would have required presenters or hosts of certain events to pay for security costs or see their event cancelled – was unconstitutional.

The National Library Association and the Texas Library Association both sent letters to the council warning that proposed changes could be problematic.

Going forward, the city’s approach to the policy remains unknown. City staff had hoped their presentation at Thursday’s meeting would have resulted in some form of direction from council – even if it was a complete overhaul of the proposals – so that they could decide whether or not to continue the temporary bans among other issues.

After the council took no action, Neu said the city would work on providing the public an update in the near future about what the city plans to do.

Library staff, council member and national organization allege discrimination

The controversy began in May when the library tried to host a Drag Queen Story Time event and subsequently cancelled it amidst the controversy. A local LGBTQ-supportive church rented a library room to keep the event alive on June 15, although it eventually changed into a LGBTQ festival. On the day of the event, 300 people protested outside of the library, evenly split between supporters and opponents of it.

In response to the incident, the city imposed a temporary ban on outside performers and later on new library room rentals while it conducted a review of library policies for both items.

Sturges was originally scheduled to speak on July 9 about her work on the "Lumberjanes" comic series during the library’s weekly graphic novel book club. Just two hours before the event, the city cancelled the event.

Neu said the sudden cancellation was due to the city not learning about the event until just before it was set to begin because library staff failed to inform the city about and subsequently get approval.

“We failed to have the discussion with library staff about what the nature of some the events involved,” Neu said at the time. “It wasn’t brought up initially as one of the events we were considering, so it was an issue that we felt needed to be addressed immediately as soon as we learned about it.”

The National Coalition Against Censorship’s letter argued that Sturges' event meet the city’s public posted reason for its temporary cancellation of the Drag Queen and Summer Superhero Saturday event, which had said the city was temporary cancelling only live, outside performers who are not part of the Central Texas Library System’s list of preferred performers.

Neu said the city was trying to hold off on all programs not in this definition until they could complete a review of the library policies and background checks, which included a citizen survey, and receive clear direction from the council. The library is run by a third-party company on behalf of the city and its current policies do not require a background check of performers. 

In a series of exclusive interviews, several library staff members each claimed that during an update from city staff about the security preparations for the planned June 15 protest against the LGBTQ festival, city staff members – including Neu and Parks and Recreation Director Mark Tummons – gave explicit approval for going ahead with the Sturges' event, which they had been asked for guidance on given the recent policy changes. Each staff member said it was not mentioned that Sturges was transgender during the discussions because the city only asked about how many people would be attending, and it was not an LGBTQ event – the author was only invited because the club was reading her work.

Each of the interviewed library staff members also claimed in that in the same meeting Neu and Tummons told a library staff member they could not have Pride as their June theme for the library’s internal monthly story hour, requesting they hold off until they could complete the policy review and present it to the council in the near future. The library has selected Pride as the story time theme in previous years because June is Pride Month.

The staff member said the city staff did not object to having a Pride theme in August.

The library has repeated stated in public comments and release that city and library events would not be subject to the temporary bans.

All of the interviewed staff members said they believed the city’s actions were discriminatory.

In response to the allegations, Neu categorically denied the allegations Thursday, stating they had specifically stated in both situations that library staff need to get any program approved through both the Library Director and the Parks and Recreations director.

Neu said believe the situation that lead to the Sturges cancellation was simply a continuation of the communication failures that have persisted throughout the library’s review. He admitted the city failed to properly explain which events it was temporarily banning, arguing they had not changed their criteria with Sturges and that they had instead meant from the start to ban any “any outside guest who are not on the Central Library’s lists of performers.” He said “outside guests” was meant to include anyone who would present in front of children and young adults that the library did not have a prior relationship with, particularly given the public criticism the library had received of the lack of background checks.

In an email to the media, Council Member Christine Sederquist openly questioned why the library had leaned so heavily on the Central Texas Library System’s performer list, arguing the city was using it to conveniently getting around having to cancel all library events and exclude ones like the Sturges talk and Drag Queen Story Time events despite its lax nature.

In her emails with CTLS officials, they explained that organization does not conduct criminal background checks and only require at least one reference from a member library the event has performed at in the past before adding them to the list – although they said they will forgo even that if video of the performance is available online.

When asked about it, Neu said the system is “the only existing vetting system the Leander library was associated with at the time (of the bans being instated).”

The library staff members requested their names not be used in the story out of fear of retaliation from the city.

During Thursday’s council meeting, Sederquist heavily criticized the city’s decisions to implement the temporary ban on certain programs and new room rentals. She argued there was no reasonable justifications for them, noting the bans had impacted people and their ability to utilize the library, and stated the city could choose to reverse its ban at any time.

“It wasn’t a council action… why are we not currently renting out rooms?” Sederquist asked, waiting for several minutes and receiving no response from city staff. “Somebody took the action. Who was it?”

Tummons responded by saying the city’s presentation was just guidelines for the council to consider and change as they see fit, but he did not answer her question.

When the drag event and later the Sturges event was cancelled, Neu had said the decision in each instance was made by collectively by himself, Tummons, the Library Director, the Acting City Manager and the City Attorney.

After the meeting, Sederquist said she did not believe Tummons’ explanation of why he suggested ending library room rentals because it had not been mentioned at all during her 3-hour review of the policy suggestions with city staff.

She said they accepted most of her suggested revisions but told her they had talked to only one other council member, who was unwilling to budge on keeping in the controversial room rental proposal that required the renter to cover the cost. She said the talk about limited library space, and the suggestion about for ending room usage, only emerged after the city received the emails from the national organization that asserted the proposal wasn’t legal.

During the meeting discussion, Sederquist questioned Hill whether he had met with the city attorney about the proposed revisions and he said he confirmed it. Sederquist argued that response proved he was the only other council member that city staff had met with ahead of Thursday.

Hill Country News has submitted a data request with the city for records who and how many council members participated in the revising of the proposals.

Sederquist said she has submitted several data requests of her own related to what the city said was the basis of their temporary ban and their revised policy proposals.

Library policy and proposed revisions debated

During Thursday’s meeting, Neu provided council members a written summary of some of the feedback from survey respondents, noting that the majority of the comments were related in some way to the controversial June events and subsequent cancellation of other events.

However, the council never heard the actual percentage of survey respondents who were in support of, or in opposition to, a Drag Queen Story Time or similar event. No council member asked Neu about the number of respondents in support of or against such events, or the percentage of survey responses on either side of the issue, from the dais. 

Leander Police Chief Greg Minton estimated the city spent about $20,000 for police protection during the June 15 protest, during which the library was closed to the public over serious online threats made against the event.

The final presentation was made by Tummons, who detailed the city’s proposed library policy changes to the council.

The policy had dramatic changes and redactions compared to the version posted on the agenda, including to the passage that drew allegations of censorship from national groups.

Under the passage in question, Open Cathedral Church – which rented the library’s community room to host the LGBTQ festival – would have been responsible for paying the city’s estimated costs, in advance, or have their event cancelled in the event that it became disruptive to library safety, including if the disruption was caused by opponents of the event and not the renter itself.

Prior to the meeting, Sederquist called the provision tantamount to discrimination and argued it essentially blamed the victim while anyone the ability to censor any event the didn’t like by whipping up a protest until the event became too cost prohibitive for the organizer.

In their letters to the council, the ACLU, the National Library Association and the Texas Library Association all agreed, and warned that such a policy would be a violation of the First Amendment rights of groups to speak. The groups all said that once a library was open to the public, the city and the library could not discriminate against those with controversial views.

Before the council could debate the item at the meeting, Tummons offer an alternative suggestion of possibly having the city convert the rooms for use only by the library staff and the city, saying the library is already “to the seams” on space. Hill said he would support that change.

“My preference would be if we need the space,” Hill said, “I would rather see the library have the space.”

Sederquist and Council Member Jason Shaw both strongly objected to the idea and argued for simply ending the bans and going back to the library original policy. Shaw said he has personal, faith-based issues with the nature of some of the library’s events. However, he said he and other veterans had served to protect freedom expression, so he believes “it doesn’t matter about what I believe about what someone else is doing, if it’s not illegal we should allow it.”

In her objection, Sederquist said the city received negative nation attention for cancelling the Drag Queen Story Hour and ending the library meeting room usage after a church used them to keep the event alive would clearly paint the city in a negative light again by appearing discriminatory. 

Cannon argued she wasn’t concerns about how it would appear but rather more concerned about “the taxpayers of Leander and using their money for what they said to use it for, which is a library.”

“We clearly need the space. I don’t even understand why this is a question,” Cannon said.

Sederquist later argued the meeting rooms were among the few rentable meeting rooms available to people in Leander, and many organizations like HOAs depended on them.

Another passage dealt with library program performers, prohibiting discrimination based on “origin or background” but requiring them to be accredited by CTLS or undergo a City background check. Under the last-minute revisions, the “origin or background” protection was scratched out, the CTLS requirement was dropped and the background was expanded to include “or equivalent.”

Council Member Marci Cannon questioned whether the “or equivalent” would open the city up to legal liability. City staff explained the revision was meant to avoid accidentally cutting out background checks by other organizations, such as the county, that were just as stringent by having the language too narrow.

Other discussed changes dealt with issues like restrictions on photographing or videotaping library staff or visitors.

Sederquist offered a motion to strike the controversial passages from the proposed changes and pass the rest of the city’s suggestions, urging council members to approve it so the library could be reopened sooner. No other council member seconded it, so the motion failed.

Hill and Council Member Kathryn Pantalion-Parker both argued for holding off on voting because they didn’t feel confident enough to approve the policy without further review, noting how tired the council was discussing the item well after midnight.

The council ultimately voted 5-to-1, with Sederquist opposing and Council Member Michelle Stephenson absent, to take no action.

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