Monday, September 8, 2008

Something the cat dragged in?

The story is making the rounds that Governor Sarah Palin tried to ban books from the Wasilla City Library in 1996 when she took office as mayor. There is even a list circulating via email and blogs of books Palin supposedly wanted to ban. The fact that some of these books hadn’t even been published in 1996 seems to be irrelevant to those passing the list along.

I took at look at the information behind this story and this is what I found.

The “at the time” source for this charge is a Wednesday, December 18, 1996, article published in the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman. Entitled “Palin: Library censorship inquiries 'Rhetorical'” the article was republished on the Frontiersman Website on September 5, 2008. You really have to read the whole thing. I’ll wait while you do.

In this article, Library Director Mary Ellen Emmons reports Palin twice spoke with her in October about censoring library material. I believe there was also a third conversation in December around the time the article was originally published. The article says:

The issue [the October discussions] became public last Wednesday [which would have been December 9], when Palin brought it up during an interview about the now-defunct Liquor task Force. [snip]

Palin called Emmons into her office Monday to discuss the censorship questions again.

Palin also attended Friday's staff meeting at the library, but without mentioning censorship , Emmons said.

I think this means a third conversation took place on Monday, December 7, and that Palin attended the staff meeting on Friday, December 11.

In this article, Emmons states that Palin’s questions were different from questions about normal book selection or book challenge issues and at one point says, “She was asking me how I would deal with her saying a book can't be in the library.” She goes on to say that “Palin asked her on Oct. 28 if she would object to censorship, even if people were circling the library in protest about a book.” Emmons also says she told Palin any attempts at censorship would result in ACLU involvement.

Palin says the questions were rhetorical and were asked because she was trying to get to know her staff.

This article also states that Palin had asked for letters of resignations from all Wasilla’s department heads - including Emmons - after becoming mayor. As far as I can tell from this article, none of the department heads actually left. I suspect Palin’s October request for letters of resignation from all her department heads has become confused with Palin’s attempted firing of Emmons three months later in late January and has helped to feed the rumor that Palin attempted to fire Emmons because Emmons opposed censorship.

I don’t see a smoking gun in this article. It’s possible Palin wanted to ban some books and backed off when Emmons pointed out how much grief that would bring. It’s possible there were citizens in Wasilla who had asked Palin to ban books and she was trying to determine if that was possible, feasible, and appropriate. It’s possible Palin was simply trying to determine where Emmons stood on the issue.

There are three other facts I weighed in determining whether Palin did, in fact, want to ban books.

First, Emmons supported Palin’s opponent in the mayoral election. This would tend to give Emmons a less positive view of Palin’s motives.

Second, on Thursday, January 30, 1997, Palin fired Emmons. She reversed that decision a day later. According to this article in the Anchorage Daily News (originally published Saturday, February 1, 1997), Palin decided to fire Emmons because she felt Emmons did not support her administration then changed her mind because she decided Emmons did support her after all. Interestingly, a September 4, 2008, story in the Anchorage Daily News which revived this issue says:

Emmons had been city librarian for seven years and was well liked. After a wave of public support for her, Palin relented and let Emmons keep her job.

I find the latter explanation more believable. It’s hard to imagine Emmons would be able to convince Palin of her support after only one day when she hadn’t been able to do so in the previous three months.

Whichever explanation is correct, Palin’s attempt to fire Emmons is being cited as proof that Palin wanted to ban books and wanted to fire Emmons so she could do so. I’m disinclined to believe that for two reasons. First, this attempt to fire Emmons took place more than a month after the last time censorship was raised. Second, there is no evidence Palin even attempted to ban books either before or after Emmons resigned in August of 1999.

The September 4 Anchorage Daily News story says:

Were any books censored banned? June Pinell-Stephens, chairwoman of the Alaska Library Association's Intellectual Freedom Committee since 1984, checked her files Wednesday and came up empty-handed.

Pinell-Stephens also had no record of any phone conversations with Emmons about the issue back then. Emmons was president of the Alaska Library Association at the time.

The short preface to the September 5 Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman post says:

Please note that not at any time were any books ever banned from the Wasilla city library.

And that is the third factor I weighed: no books were ever banned from the Wasilla City Library. Given that fact, I don’t think this story has much basis.

There is one other aspect of this story that deserves attention: Anne Kilkenny. She appears to be driving the narrative that Palin tried to fire Emmons because Emmons wouldn’t ban books from the library. Kilkenny is the author of the August 31, 2008, “About Sarah Palin” email which specifically ties the attempted firing to the censorship issue without explaining the timeline. She also implies Palin had specific books in mind to be banned (emphasis mine):

While Sarah was Mayor of Wasilla she tried to fire our highly respected City Librarian because the Librarian refused to consider removing from the library some books that Sarah wanted removed. City residents rallied to the defense of the City Librarian and against Palin's attempt at out-and-out censorship, so Palin backed down and withdrew her termination letter. People who fought her attempt to oust the Librarian are on her enemies list to this day.

Kilkenny turns up in a September 2, 2008, New York Times article which doesn’t mention Palin’s attempts to fire Emmons but does imply Palin had specific books in mind for her ban and introduces a new piece of information about why Palin wanted to ban them (emphasis mine):

Anne Kilkenny, a Democrat who said she attended every City Council meeting in Ms. Palin’s first year in office, said Ms. Palin brought up the idea of banning some books at one meeting. “They were somehow morally or socially objectionable to her,” Ms. Kilkenny said.

The librarian, Mary Ellen Emmons, pledged to “resist all efforts at censorship,” Ms. Kilkenny recalled.

Kilkenny also has a role in the September 4 Anchorage Daily News story where she says no specific books were mentioned (emphasis mine):

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.

This article goes on to say:

Palin might have become a household name in the last week, but Kilkenny, who is not a Palin fan, is on her own small path to Internet fame. She sent out an e-mail earlier this week to friends and family answering, from her perspective, the question Outsiders are asking any Alaskan they know: "Who is this Sarah Palin?"

Kilkenny's e-mail got bounced through cyberspace and ended up on news blogs. Now the small-town mom and housewife is scheduling interviews with national news media and got her name on the front page of The New York Times, even if it was misspelled.

And what does Emmons herself have to say about all this? According to the September 2, 2008, New York Times story:

Ms. Emmons, who left her job and Wasilla a couple of years later, declined to comment for this article.

According to the September 4 Anchorage Daily News story:

Emmons, now Mary Ellen Baker, is on vacation from her current job in Fairbanks and did not return e-mail or telephone messages left for her Wednesday.

I am sorry not to hear from Emmons about this but I can’t blame her for not wanting to get involved in the maelstrom of this campaign. Librarians are very, very smart people.


Cassandra said...

This is first rate work, Elise. You should be very proud of it.

Elise said...

Thanks, Cassandra. I appreciate that - and I am. (I'm also quite tickled with the title.)