A national organization against library censorship accused the City of Leander of censorship and discrimination Thursday in a formal letter responding to the city's cancellations of a Drag Queen Story Hour and its abrupt cancellation last week of a book club appearance by an Austin-based transgender comic book author.
Separately, the American Civil Liberty Union (ACLU) and the Texas Library Association sent letters to the mayor and city council members, taking aim at a proposed revision to the Leander Public Library's room rental and programming policies.
The two organizations aligned with Council Member Christine Sederquist, who has heavily criticized the city’s proposal, which will be presented the council Thursday night for consideration.
The two organizations and Sederquist claim the changes amount to censorship, and the ACLU characterizes the proposal as unconstitutional.
"The City cannot impose penalties for harms that others cause; just like the City cannot stifle free expression just because someone else might express a contrary view," the ACLU said in its letter. "The City has an obligation to provide security for its residents, but it is also required to follow the Constitution and First Amendment."
The most controversial provision before the council Thursday is a change to the Meeting Room Use Policy that would allow room rental to be cancelled if it “creates a disruption, becomes a source of contention or divisiveness to the extent that it becomes a safety hazard or is determined by the Library Director for any other reason to create an interference with the use of and access to the main Library building and facilities.”
The library could either not allow the event or require the organizer to pay for all police security, emergency services or other protections like barricades.
Under the change, Open Cathedral Church's rental for the purpose of holding a it's Leander Pride Festival and Story Time event could have been cancelled, or the library could have required the church to have to pay for the costs of policing the protesters who came to the event – even though many of the protests against the event had travelled from outside of the city.
An attachment to the agenda item estimated the cost of staffing and policing the June 15 event and protest at $20,255.
The ACLU and the Texas Library Association sent strongly worded letters to the council Thursday objecting to the proposed changes.
In an email to the media and online posts, Sedrequist argued the provision in the policy change is tantamount to blaming the victim and represents a suppression of free speech.
“This move, in my opinion, is being used to silence voices that certain members of the community don’t want to have heard. All that has to happen to silence any group is to make a threat against them, and instead of charging the perpetrator of the threat, we’re going to charge the victim,” Sederquist wrote. “Under this provision, if you want to have a meeting about CapMetro and someone doesn't want you to have that meeting, all they have to do is say there is a threat.”
The National Coalition Against Censorship’s (NOCAC) Thursday letter to the city and Mayor Troy Hill said comic book author Lilah Sturges’s cancellation was disturbing given it appeared to even go against the city’s own instituted policy, leading them to believe it represents viewpoint and gender discrimination.
The organization called on the city to immediately end its temporary ban on the originally planned event to have Sturges speak at the library.
The Leander Public Library drew national attention in May when it tried to host a Drag Queen Story Hour event and subsequently cancelled it amidst the controversy. A local LGBTQ-supportive church rented a room at the library to keep the event alive on June 15, eventually changing it to a LGBTQ festival. The event received approximately 300 protesters, evenly split between supporters and opponents of the event.
In response to the controversy, the city imposed a temporary ban on library room rentals and live programs by outside performers and groups so the city could conduct a review of both policies and present their findings to the council this Thursday. City and library officials were still allowed to hold their regular events under this policy.
Sturges had originally been scheduled to attend the Leander Public Library’s weekly graphic novel book club on July 9 to discuss her work on the Lumberjane comics.
“We weren’t aware it had been scheduled. We weren’t aware it had been promoted until (that day),” Neu said at the time, citing communication challenges between city and library staff. “As soon as we became aware of it, we reviewed it the same way we reviewed previous events and said ‘this is not something we would have moved forward with had we know about it at the time.’”
Neu cited a previously unannounced expansion of the city’s temporary prohibition on library events to include any event not directly organized by city or library staff, or any event that isn’t included in the Central Texas Library System’s slate of recommended performers, pending direction from the council.
NOCAC said it recognized the city’s temporary ban but noted the Sturges event had been scheduled by library staff months in advance, didn’t involve reserving a meeting room nor did it involve an outside performer and it was the only event to be cancelled since the temporary ban was instituted.
"It gives the appearance that they chose to cancel it and then looked for a reason afterwards," said NCAC Director of Communications Nora Pelizzari.
On the day her appearance was canceled, Neu acknowledged that Sturges' appearance would not have been canceled under the original plan, since it didn’t involve ‘performers,’ but said the city decided to change the temporary halt to include “all events involving outside groups meeting with or at least hosting an activity in front of children and young adults.”
The council will discuss the city’s proposals during Thursday’s council meeting, including whether they will vote to adopt them, modify them or table them for future discussions.
The Hill Country News received a copy of a letter from the American Library Association late Thursday, adding another group to the list of organizations opposed to the proposed changes to the Leander Public Library's room rental and programming policies.
The letter, addressed to the full city council, warns that the actions pondered by the council could result in legal action against the city and the library.
"When libraries open their meeting rooms for use by the public, courts have generally held that the meeting rooms become a designated public forum subject to regulation under the First Amendment," the ALA letter said.
Written by Deborah Caldwell-Stone, from organization's Office for Intellectual Freedom, the letter goes on to warn that the city and its public library "may not disadvantage or exclude speakers or groups because of a disagreement with their views or the content of their speech."
"Nor may the library exclude a group from its facilities to avoid controversy or public disapproval. A provision that allows cancellation of an event because it is perceived to be 'a source of contention or divisiveness' may raise the risk that the library could be sued on First Amendment grounds, or for discrimination," Caldwell-Stone's letter continues.
The regular session of the council opened to a full house, with standing room only on Thursday.
This is a developing story and will be updated later today, including a report of any action taken by the city council.