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Utah Library Stirs Controversy by Ending LGBTQ Book Promotions

LGBTQ Reads button

Library workers in Washington County were told not to wear buttons promoting LGBTQ books and to take down Pride Month displays.

Anticensorship groups are speaking out against a Utah library's decision to end promotion of LGBTQ-themed books after receiving complaints from patrons.

In June, workers at the Hurricane Branch of the Washington County Library System in southern Utah were asked to stop wearing buttons reading "Ask Me About LGBTQ Reads," local newspaper The Spectrum & Daily News reports. Last year, they were told to take down displays that featured LGBTQ books for Pride Month. Joel Tucker, the library system director, said some patrons objected to the displays, but the affected workers said they never received any complaints directly.

Now the National Coalition Against Censorship is weighing in by sending a letter to Tucker, saying the actions represent government censorship. "As organizations dedicated to promoting freedom of expression and equal rights, we wish to emphasize our concerns in the context of your First Amendment obligations," the letter reads in part. "In addition, we must also note that your actions raise serious concerns about discrimination based on sexual orientation."

"As public institutions, libraries may determine the time, place and manner in which materials are exhibited, but they have a constitutional obligation not to deny access to material or otherwise discriminate on the basis of viewpoint," it continues. "Not only is suppressing LGBTQ displays likely to be a violation of the First Amendment, it further marginalizes a vulnerable minority group and would set a dangerous precedent of intolerance to purportedly controversial ideas." It also urges the system to set up a formal procedure to address complaints about materials and offers resources to help with this.

The letter is signed by Chris Finan, executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship; Shedrick Davis, regional director for Lambda Legal; and Millie Davis, director of the Intellectual Freedom Center of the National Council of Teachers of English. The coalition has dozens of member organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Library Association, Catholics for Choice, the PEN American Center, SAG-AFTRA, and the communications offices of the United Church of Christ and United Methodist Church.

"Handling complaints about library displays can be challenging, but banning material just because some find it controversial is a violation of core constitutional principles," said Abena Hutchful, coordinator of the coalition's youth programs, in a press release. "A public library's mission is to foster a culture of inclusion, open dialogue, and tolerance."

Hurricane Library employee Ammon Treasure told The Spectrum & Daily News that the forced removal of the displays and buttons is discriminatory and that the library regularly organizes displays for other observances, including St. Patrick's Day and Black History Month, and about news events and controversial topics such as polygamy.

"There persists an idea that acknowledgement of LGBTQ people equates to promoting a specific agenda or advocating for deviant behavior," he said. "I want to go on record in stating that this is not true. We only desire your respect and equal treatment in regards to the services the library provides."

A coworker, Natalie Daniel, said the removal will likely make LGBTQ residents feel unwelcome. "To have that taken away, to me, isn't it kind of sending the wrong message?" she told the paper.

Tucker said he told workers to take down the Pride Month displays last year after he received multiple complaints. "I take it from the perspective of the patron," he told The Spectrum & Daily News. "What they see is we're advocating for that point of view, and that we want them to read that. That's not our intent, to drive people to support one ideal over the other or advocate for one position over another."

This year, instead of Pride Month displays, the library featured "diversity" displays with a variety of books and signage that said "Libraries Are for Everyone." Tucker called these more appropriate, and said the library system tries to steer clear of divisive topics.

For instance, he said, "We have some strong supporters [of Donald Trump] and some strong Trump haters, so it's not like we would have a Trump display. Generally, as a library we try to avoid those kinds of things."

As for the buttons, he said, workers were told to remove them because the county library board adopted a new employee dress code that prohibited wearing buttons.

Equality Utah, the state's LGBTQ rights group, organized a forum last week for all parties to air concerns. Mark Chambers, a gay man who is a former town councilman in Springdale, Utah, said controversy over LGBTQ-related materials has been manufactured.

"You have made it controversial," Chambers said to Tucker at the forum, according to St. George News, a local media website. "You are advocating a side saying we don't have a presence. ... The reasoning and decisions you are using hurts me and it hurts my community. You have created this controversy."

After the meeting, Tucker told St. George News he tries to keep the system's libraries a neutral ground where all are welcome. "I strive to be accepting to all people and all perspectives, and the LGBTQ community is a part of that," he said. "I want them to feel included and a part of the library."

He stressed that his actions affected only the displays and the promotional buttons, and that LGBTQ-themed books remain available throughout the eight-library Washington County system. None of the other libraries in the system have featured LGBTQ-focused displays.

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