Palin’s Alleged Library Censorship Opens Up Wider Debate

by Scott Stiffler
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Wednesday September 24, 2008

Past actions by Sarah Palin as the mayor of a small Alaskan city have ignited a wider debate as to the role of public libraries, socially progressive authors and conservative organizations. Sometimes, it seems all three disparate groups find themselves on the same page in their call for access to information.

Meanwhile, the Republican vice-presidential candidate faces scrutiny for a twelve-year-old series of events that call into question her yen for censorship and penchant for terminating employees who don't toe the line.

In 1996, Wasilla, Alaska, then-mayor and Assembly of God church member Sarah Palin made several inquiries to town librarian Mary Ellen Baker as to what her reaction would be were she asked to remove certain books from the shelves. Was it a test of loyalty or the first step in banning titles that favorably portrayed LGBTs?

According to June Pinnell-Stephens, Chair of the Intellectual Freedom Committee of the Alaska Library Association, "No titles were reported as having been challenged or removed. When I talked to Mary Ellen, she confirmed there were no specific titles mentioned by then-mayor Palin."

The request did, however, come at a time when the book "Pastor, I am Gay" was the subject of a censorship campaign led by Palin's church. Several copies of that title soon disappeared from library shelves (no culprits have ever been identified).

Although the book wasn't specifically challenged or removed from library shelves by Palin, the scrutiny it received had a lasting impact upon the author and his church. Howard Bess, a pastor emeritus of Palmer, Alaska's Church of the Covenant, recalls in an exclusive interview with EDGE how Palin's Assembly of God Church successfully kept his book from being sold throughout the Matanuska Valley area: "When our one chain store, Walden Books, would not carry it, we rented space just outside of Walden and sold 150 books in a day."

Bess describes the book as one that explores "the relationship between gay people and churches from the perspective of a pastor who does not believe that he can reject, condemn or judge." The book deals with each of the Bible passages that many think are relevant to gay men and lesbians. But Bess says the real source of ire is the fact that he "maintains that homosexuality is not an illness, is not a sin, and that gay people are sexually just as normal as heterosexual people. That is where you really start ruffling feathers."

Bess cites the book's publication as one of the reasons why Palmer's Church of the Covenant was "disfellowshipped by the American Baptist Churches of Alaska." To this day, "We remain an American Baptist church, but the other American Baptist churches in Alaska will have nothing to do with us."

'Falwell with a pretty face'
For Bess (who describes Palin as "Jerry Falwell with a pretty face"), the issue is not censorship. It's "the framework of thinking that comes out of her fundamentalist religion." Bess says that to understand Palin's motivations on any given issue, "You must realize she's always been a part of fundamentalist churches" populated by "hardcore bible literalists who see the world in black and white terms. They have a very clear vision of what is evil or bad, and you never cooperate with evil. You confront it and you defeat it."

Bess links this stubborn refusal to engage in debate or tolerate dissent to Palin's "history of dismissing and firing people." Pinnell-Stephens agrees, citing the numerous inquiries Palin made into the possibility of removing titles from Wasilla library shelves as well as what happened when Baker would not accommodate censorship in either theory or practice.

"The second time she asked the question, it could still be trying to get more information as a manager," she says. "But the third time she asked that question, I would start perking up my ears and taking note that she had something in mind." Two months after the questions were posed, Baker received "a letter of dismissal. The community rose up and fought for her."

Although Palin rescinded the dismissal, Pinnell-Stephens believes that the "combination of these two situations, a letter of dismissal and the question of censorship asked three times, is pretty strong evidence to me that she was thinking of actions later on."

Although others who have claimed Baker was dismissed because she was a political appointee from a previous administration, Pinnell-Stephens notes "It's my understanding that mayor Palin kept telling Mary Ellen she didn't think she had her support."

While some regard the incident as a window into the temperament and conservative views of Palin, others see it as an opportunity to debate the scope and content of what makes it to the shelves of a public library.

Far from calling for the removal of LGBT-affirming titles, Americans for Truth president Peter LaBarbera sees the Palin incident as an opportunity to "look at library selections and suggest titles they can carry from a conservative perspective."

"Gay activists have to be careful what they're asking for." says LaBarbera, who believes "A case can be made that there's a strong pro gay bias in libraries."

Why, he wonders, can titles like "Pastor, I am Gay" be on the shelves when books like "Homosexuality: The Politics of Truth" are not? A public library that's funded by taxpayers of every sexual orientation and political stripe, he argues, ought to represent the full spectrum of beliefs.

On that matter, at least, Pinnell-Stephens agrees. Having worked as collection services manager at the Fairbanks, Alaska library, she thinks "it's appropriate that libraries represent both sides of issues. Representing doesn't necessarily mean an equal number. It means making sure the viewpoint is available."

Rejecting censorship in favor of championing parity, LaBarbera's organization plans to implement a similar strategy currently being employed by [email protected] ' target="_blank"> Parents and Friends of Ex Gays and Gays.

PFOX encourages its supporters to "ask your county, school, or city library to order ex-gay books" noting that "a librarian's professional code requires them to seek out books that represent a wide range of viewpoints." Their website provides a sample letter along with suggested titles for your local library to stock (including Restoring Sexual Identity and A Parent's Guide to Preventing Homosexuality).

For LaBarbera, "What motivates our side is that libr4ries are far more likely to carry the latest gay books while there's a paucity of books on the ex gay or the conservative viewpoint that are never going to make it into the library. Some of these books may have to be donated by conservatives."

Pinnell-Stephens reminds those interested in providing their libraries with new titles that "Most libraries have a policy that says you're welcome to donate material. We will examine it according to the same criteria we use for materials we buy."

The source isn't important, she notes: "Measuring it against the criteria makes the difference as to whether materials go to the shelves or not." She also reminds readers who may be smarting from the censorship inquiries of Palin and others that "Banned Books Week starts on Saturday, September 27. Read a banned book!"

Go to The American Library Association to find find lots of material on what books have banned and why. They're often among the most interesting you'll ever read.

Scott Stiffler is a New York City based writer and comedian who has performed stand-up, improv, and sketch comedy. His show, "Sammy's at The Palace. . .at Don't Tell Mama"---a spoof of Liza Minnelli's 2008 NYC performance at The Palace Theatre, recently had a NYC run. He must eat twice his weight in fish every day, or he becomes radioactive.

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