09 September 2008

“What...if I asked you to remove some books?”

As long as I'm talking libraries and attempts at censorship, I might as well continue. Yesterday's example involved a patron: i.e., bottom-up pressure. More disturbing is pressure from the top down.

On Friday, Rindi White of the Alaska Daily News wrote about Sarah Palin's inquiries, as she became mayor of her home town of Wasilla, into whether she could remove books from the public library if she objected to their content:

In December 1996, Emmons told her hometown newspaper, the Frontiersman, that Palin three times asked her--starting before she was sworn in--about possibly removing objectionable books from the library if the need arose.

Emmons told the Frontiersman she flatly refused to consider any kind of censorship. . . .

When the matter came up for the second time in October 1996, during a City Council meeting, Anne Kilkenny, a Wasilla housewife who often attends council meetings, was there.

Like many Alaskans, Kilkenny calls the governor by her first name.

"Sarah said to Mary Ellen, 'What would your response be if I asked you to remove some books from the collection?'" Kilkenny said.

"I was shocked. Mary Ellen sat up straight and said something along the line of, 'The books in the Wasilla Library collection were selected on the basis of national selection criteria for libraries of this size, and I would absolutely resist all efforts to ban books.'"

Palin didn't mention specific books at that meeting, Kilkenny said.

Palin herself, questioned at the time, called her inquiries rhetorical and simply part of a policy discussion with a department head "about understanding and following administration agendas," according to the Frontiersman article. . . .

Books may not have been pulled from library shelves, but there were other repercussions for Emmons.

Four days before the exchange at the City Council, Emmons got a letter from Palin asking for her resignation. Similar letters went to police chief Irl Stambaugh, public works director Jack Felton and finance director Duane Dvorak. John Cooper, a fifth director, resigned after Palin eliminated his job overseeing the city museum.

Palin told the Anchorage Daily News then that the letters were just a test of loyalty as she took on the mayor's job, which she'd won from three-term mayor John Stein in a hard-fought election. Stein had hired many of the department heads. Both Emmons and Stambaugh had publicly supported him against Palin.

Emmons survived the loyalty test and a second one a few months later. She resigned in August 1999, two months before Palin was voted in for a second mayoral term.
In response to popular interest, the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman dug its 18 Dec 1996 story out of its archives, retyped it, and posted it here.
Emmons said in the conversations with now-Mayor Palin in October [1996], she reminded her again that the city has a policy in place. “But it seamed clear to me that wasn't really what she was talking about anyhow,” Emmons added. “I just hope it doesn't come up again.”
Another story from the Alaska Daily News in January 1997, quoted in this Salon article by Glenn Greenwald, reported on how Mayor Palin was dealing with the controversy that her termination letters produced. She responded by doing what's become rather familiar behavior in the week that she's been a national figure: make a statement that sounds nice but wasn't truthful.
Palin said she planned to meet with Stambaugh and Emmons this afternoon. She also disputed whether they had actually been fired. "There's been no meeting, no actual terminations," she said.

Stambaugh's response was to read part of the letter given to him.

"Although I appreciate your service as police chief, I've decided it's time for a change. I do not feel I have your full support in my efforts to govern the city of Wasilla. Therefore I intend to terminate your employment. . . . "

"If that's not a letter of termination, I don't know what is," he said.
Finally, the Alaska Daily News has reprinted the story it originally ran on 1 Feb 1997 about how Mayor Palin had gone through with firing the police chief but rescinded the termination of the librarian. There's no record Palin ever ordered books removed. As a politician, she seems to have great instincts for pulling back from unpopular initiatives and grabbing onto popular ones, and library censorship isn't widely popular. But by raising the possibility as she did, Palin established her social-conservative credentials with voters and her authority with city employees.



Anonymous said...

Great post - thank you. I like the way you approach this issue and really appreciate your care with the facts.


Jay said...

Okay, I'm definitely not voting for McCain now... What if she takes it into her head to ban books from the Library of Congress? (That'd be hilarious...)

Nathan said...

Maybe she was the one who had taken out the copy of Pirates in Oz from the Library of Congress when I tried to read it there. Perhaps she wanted to find out more about Nowhere, so she could build a bridge to there.