Viewpoint: Censorship at the library

The Evanston Public Library.

On Friday June 2, the Evanston Public Library held a hearing that may lead to the firing of librarian Lesley Williams this week.

Her alleged crime? Posting a message on her personal Facebook page criticizing the library’s efforts at racial equity.

This makes it an important case in the wake of Garcetti v. Ceballos, about the right of public employees to criticize the government. The city of Evanston has an unconstitutional rule banning all city employees from posting anything on social media critical of another city employee or city department.


Viewpoint


This is also an important issue of intellectual freedom. Information newly revealed shows that there has been extraordinary misconduct at the Evanston Public Library—however, it was committed not by Williams, but by the library director and members of the Board.

Origin of the dispute

Internal library documents released in response to an FOIA request (apparently by accident, since the city of Evanston has now removed them from their website) reveal that the library director, Karen Danczak Lyons, and members of its Board of Trustees have plotted to fire Williams since 2014 because she worked with the group Neighbors for Peace to invite Ali Abunimah, to discuss his book, The Battle for Justice in Palestine, at the library.

Even though Williams had been seeking a pro-Israel speaker for later in the fall, Danczak Lyons ordered Abunimah’s original speech in August 2014 to be cancelled because the future pro-Israel speaker had not yet been confirmed.

After Danczak Lyons cancelled the speech in the name of “balance,” a huge public outcry forced her to rescind the ban and re-invite Abunimah to speak. Amazingly, Danczak Lyons and the Board blamed this embarrassment on Williams. The documents reveal that in 2014, immediately after the Ali Abunimah controversy, the Board and Danczak Lyons plotted to fire Williams in retaliation for inviting Abunimah and bringing public attention to the censorship.

The 2015 Board evaluation of Danczak Lyons uncovered some shocking comments by unnamed Board members. Most appalling of all, one Board comment revealed that Danczak Lyons had promised to fire Williams: “My only concern here is KDL’s reluctance to let Lesley Williams go. We met with her in an exec. session, at her insistence, and she told us that she was going to do that. This session on was in September, and LW is still in the staff.”

This means that a few weeks after the Abunimah debacle, Danczak Lyons announced to the Board of Trustees that she would be firing Williams in retaliation for inviting Abunimah.

Since then, Danczak Lyons has tried to make good on this promise, repeatedly suspending Williams on highly dubious grounds. In 2015, Williams was suspended for 15 days for publicly mentioning the library’s interest in a genealogy collection. Earlier this year, Williams was suspended again for 15 days for reasons that the library has never explained in detail. And now this Facebook post has led to another suspension and possible termination of Williams.

Board president Michael Tannen wrote in an email to Danczak Lyons on August 3, 2014 after the Abunimah event was cancelled, “I really am not happy that the Board and you had to get involved in programming issues but it is for the best. Were this program to have gone forward, there could have been even more backlash, with financial ramifications to boot.” This is clearly an admission that the speaker was cancelled, and that fear of financial retaliation (whether by donors or taxpayers is unclear) was used to justify censorship.

In the same email, Tannen blamed Williams for the controversy: “Sadly, I think the white-hot reaction to this program was known or should have been known by its planner. To an attendee not in the know, the use of an emcee with his own agenda, and a Jewish one at that, further validates the speaker’s views. We shouldn’t allow our library to be used like that, and I mean ‘used’ in both senses.”

Confirmation of a plot to get rid of Williams because of the Abunimah event can be found in numerous other Board comments on the 2015 evaluation of Danczak Lyons.

One Board member noted about Danczak Lyons “she stepped to the fore during the Ali Abunimah debacle in the midst of libelous charges of censorship by her and EPL as an institution. However, the Lesley Williams situation remains festering and unresolved to the disappointment of the Board and probably, of staff as well.”

In the section about staff, a Board member commented, “Lesley Williams’ continued adversarial and incorrigible attitude is what prevents me from giving KDL the highest mark for this metric.”

Another Board comment was this: “Karen is very aware of the policies and employs them to deal with personnel. This may be why she has waited so long to deal with Lesley Williams, wanting to get all her ducks in a row.” A Board member also said, “I am a little concerned that a staff issue related to Ali Abunimah has been allowed to fester.”

One Board member praised the director and directly blamed Williams: “During the Ali Abunimah fiasco, where lw bllndsided her, she kept her dignity and the whole business faded away.”

Amazingly, the groupthink among the Board was so pervasive that not one Board member in the 2015 evaluation made any criticism of Danczak Lyons for her indefensible act of censorship. When that happened, the only way to explain the public outcry against cancelling a speaker was to blame Williams for everything, and to seek revenge against her.

In 2015, Danczak Lyons ordered Williams to clear any “controversial” speakers with her in advance after Williams had worked with a community leader to hold an event with students from We Charge Genocide, an anti-police brutality group. According to Williams, Danczak Lyons “insisted that I remove all references to the program from the library website, and social media and bulletin board; that I not speak at it, that no library personnel be at all involved with it.” When the library director not only is banning controversial events, but banning librarians from speaking at public events, it shows how far the culture of censorship went.

The desire to find any excuse to exact revenge against Williams was revealed in an email from Board Vice-President Margaret Lurie to Danczak Lyons on March 9, 2017, “LW is clearly the thorn in our sides, but at this point, unless she really oversteps her role, we are stuck. Agreed?” Danczak Lyons responded the next morning, “Agreed.” But Danczak Lyons apparently seized upon Williams’ Facebook post as yet another excuse to punish her.

During the 2017 suspension hearing against Williams, the accusations against her were largely kept secret, so that it was impossible for an outsider to know whether she deserved any punishment. And because the 2015 evaluation had been kept secret, no one knew about explicit admission of a vendetta against Williams by Danczak Lyons and the Board. But the latest charges against Williams are based on a Facebook post made by her, so we can assess all the evidence, and it is clear that there is no basis for any punishment.

Williams wrote on her personal Facebook page, “Some organizations are true leaders in practicing equity and inclusion. And some prefer to post signs on their bulletin boards. Evanston Public Library” She posted a photo of a library flier that read, “Free & Equal Access for All.” (Williams thought that the sign had been ordered by the library administration to oppose community critics of the library’s effectiveness at equity, but the sign was created by librarians to welcome all patrons regardless of immigration status.)

City social media policy

Williams is being punished under a City of Evanston rule restricting the use of personal social media accounts by city employees, a rule that is clearly overbroad and unconstitutional. Under the rule, “Postings or user profiles on personal social media accounts must not serve to defame or damage the reputation of fellow City employees or City departments.”

Since the rule goes beyond “defame” (which only covers false statements) to include anything that might “damage the reputation of fellow City employees or City departments” it clearly covers truthful statements, and the truth would not be a defense for any employee brought up on charges under it.

That means any city employee who writes something on social media that’s negative about any city employee would be in violation of this policy. As a result, city employees during a political campaign would only be allowed to support the current mayor and alderman (who are city employees), and could not criticize them because that might damage their reputations.

If any city employee wanted to run for alderman, they would have to campaign without ever criticizing anything the city does. That’s just one example of why this extraordinarily broad and repressive city regulation could not pass constitutional muster.

Last year, in Heffernan vs. City of Paterson, the Supreme Court limited the power of government officials to punish public employees in a statement that clearly applies to Williams: “When an employer demotes an employee out of a desire to prevent the employee from engaging in protected political activity, the employee is entitled to challenge that unlawful action under the First Amendment." 

The only legal grounding for punishing Williams is the ruling in Garcetti v. Ceballos, when the five conservatives on the Supreme Court wrote that its “precedents do not support the existence of a constitutional cause of action behind every statement a public employee makes in the course of doing his or her job.”

Instead, public employees are not speaking as citizens when they are speaking to fulfill a responsibility of their job. The test is whether a public employee’s speech is in fact a “government employees’ work product” and “owes its existence to a public employee’s professional responsibilities.” In the Garcetti case, an assistant district attorney was punished for the content of a memo he wrote for his job that was not a public statement.

Even by the repressive right-wing standards of Garcetti v. Ceballos, Williams’ Facebook post cannot be punished. Garcetti v. Ceballos held that the “controlling factor” was whether the speech “owes its existence to a public employee’s professional responsibilities” and is an employer exercising control “over what the employer itself has commissioned or created.” Williams’ comments were definitely not part of her work responsibilities for the library, they were written on her personal Facebook page, and they were made as part of an important public debate about racial equity.

Free speech for librarians

Perhaps even more important than the weak legal position of Evanston in this case is the weak moral position it holds. Evanston likes to think of itself as a liberal city committed to free expression, but the treatment of Williams is a fundamental violation of those espoused values, which are especially critical at a library.

The AAUP along with many other organizations in 1973 issued the joint Statement on Faculty Status of College and University Librarians. Although that statement is aimed at college librarians, the basic values apply to all librarians, whom the statement says “are trustees of knowledge with the responsibility of ensuring the intellectual freedom of the academic community through the availability of information and ideas, no matter how controversial.”

According to the statement, “Academic freedom is indispensable to librarians in their roles as teachers and researchers.” As institutions devoted to intellectual liberty, libraries have a special responsibility to protect the freedom of their employees and patrons, more so than other city departments.

The AAUP’s University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee chapter issued a statement on April 27, 2017 against the earlier punishment of Williams: “While it is technically being explained as resulting from ‘unprofessional conduct,’ we recognize that disciplinary action against Williams takes place in context of a broad assault against intellectual freedom.

Cynically wrapping itself in advocacy for ‘balance,’ this assault targets educators like Williams for presenting diverse perspectives intended to engage the full range of the community served by public institutions such as the EPL. Disciplinary action against Williams, then, is part of a general attack on institutions of public education.”

What happened at the Evanston Public Library is also a violation of the American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights, which states that “Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment” and that “Libraries should cooperate with all persons and groups concerned with resisting abridgment of free expression and free access to ideas.” It is difficult to comprehend how punishing a librarian for her personal blog posts critical of the library is compatible with any of these values.

As Joshua Karsh, Williams’ lawyer, noted: “The Library’s attempt to silence Lesley suggests that, in addition to resisting sharing library resources more equitably with all parts of the Evanston community, the Library Director is afraid of words. I would have thought the Library, of all institutions, would protect freedom of expression and recognize it as an inalienable right.”

Viewpoint author John K. Wilson.

I should note my own potential personal bias here. I am the co-organizer of the Evanston Literary Festival, for which the library is one of our partners, and Williams has been our primary library contact.

Danczak Lyons is not someone I hold in high regard, especially because of the Abunimah case. And the first Evanston Literary Festival in 2015 almost had to be cancelled because of Danczak Lyons’ incompetence and her failure to respond to multiple emails when we asked her to approve the library’s involvement (eventually, we just went ahead and did it without a response from her, but the delays affected the quality of the first Festival).

During three years organizing the largest literary event in Evanston, Danczak Lyons has never thanked us, helped us, or even acknowledged the Festival’s existence.

Danczak Lyons decided to suspend Williams during the entirety of this year’s Festival, which was a distraction that left the library short-handed. The only time we have ever gotten an email from Danczak Lyons was when a reporter cc’d her in asking for comment about the Festival, and then she immediately offered to talk to the press about an event she had never lifted a finger to help.

However, my personal attitude toward Danczak Lyons doesn’t change the facts I have outlined (and I have never had any opinions about the Library Board until the evidence now revealed). For example, I don’t see any evidence that Danczak Lyons is targeting Williams (the only full-time African-American librarian) because of race, as some critics have claimed (although the Board and the director have certainly concealed evidence of misconduct before).

So what should happen now?

First, the public deserves to know everything. If not for the accidental release of the 2015 evaluation, it’s possible that Danczak Lyons and the Board could have continued to conceal their tracks, and then paid off Williams with a settlement after they got rid of her.\

The information censored from the city website should be restored, and all of Lyons’ evaluations and other information need to be made public to find out if further misconduct is revealed in them. Every member of the Board ought to explain what they knew about these plans for retaliation against Williams, and how they responded. The Mayor should appoint an independent committee to investigate the library’s problems.

Second, there needs to be a change in policies. The City of Evanston must eliminate its unconstitutional restrictions on the personal speech of city employees. The Evanston Public Library needs to adopt stronger policies on intellectual freedom, and educate the Board and administration about the concept.

Third, there needs to be a change in personnel. People who oppose intellectual freedom, and who retaliate against the employees who oppose censorship, should not be running libraries. New members need to be appointed to the Board, members who respect freedom of speech as well as equity. Michael Tannen, the president of the Board who completely (but secretly) endorsed the censorship of Abunimah and the attacks on Williams, cannot meet that high standard of intellectual freedom.

As for library director Karen Danczak Lyons, she completely disgraced herself by banning a speaker, and then she took revenge against Williams for doing the right thing, and repeatedly smeared Williams’ reputation while lying about the true reasons for her crusade to fire Williams. She has no credibility, and she has no integrity. Danczak Lyons needs to go.

This column also appears on John Wilson's Academe Blog.

Related stories

Facebook post may get librarian fired (6/2/17)

Things to know about the Evanston Public Library (6/4/17)

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Comments

Hire this guy !

This is journalism at its finest !

honest article

I totally agree! Wow...he was 100% on point.   I hope all the library people read it, and are embarrassed of themselves.

Consider the source

In a quick Google search of John K. Wilson I discovered he is an uber leftist. He has a PhD  in Educational Administration & Foundations from Illinois State University and authored The Myth of Political Correctness: The Conservative Attack on Higher Education, Barack Obama: This Improbable Quest; and The Most Dangerous Man in America: Rush Limbaugh’s Assault on Reason. Yes, Limbaugh is the most dangerous man in America  because he has a radio show, spouting off conservative ideas such as self reliance, less government, lower taxes, work ethic, family values, peace through strength and so on. Oh my, Limbaugh is a very dangerous man! 

Wilson was a guest in resident at the University of Illinois, hosting seminars in which one was titled, "Hate Speech vs. Free Speech: How to Respond to the Illini White Student Union, George Will, and Other Ignorant Jerks." Wilson is white so I guess he'd know how to respond to the white student union.

You get the idea. Wilson and Williams are not the only ones voicing displeasure toward Danczak-Lyons. Tiffany Rice, President of the Dajae Coleman Foundation, has a Facebook page criticizing Danczak-Lyons and demanding the Evanston Library needs new leadership. She writes: "Danczak-Lyons hampered the library’s ability to successfully co-deliver a program on police brutality organized with We Charge Genocide..."

Rice also said EPL failed to promote “Chaos and Community,” a program run by African-American trauma psychologist, Melissa Blount. She complained that EPL "partnered with local police on a program that prioritized purchasing picture books for the children’s collection that “feature police officers.” Oh gosh no, not pictures of police officers!

It seems to me there are radical far leftists that are blaming Danczak-Lyons for not hosting more radical leftist programs and seminars at the library. I know for a fact that leftists are experts at silencing speech. Take a look at what happens to conservative speakers at universities across America. They're beaten, shouted down, threatened and in many cases can't even speak because of the violence spewed by closed minded foaming-at-the-foul mouth leftists protesters.

Just two weeks ago, Northwestern University students and activists shut down a planned speech from an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) public relations officer. The professor canceled the class during the protest amid safety concerns.

Wilson wrote that shouting down conservative speakers is wrong. The reason he gave: "It reinforces the delusions of white people that they’re the victims of oppression." He added for good measure: "Republicans around the country are seeking to suppress free speech on campus under the pretense of protecting free speech from authoritarian leftists." Yeah, sure they are.

My gawd, Republicans and conservatives are rarely invited to speak at universities and are wholly underrepresented on campus faculties How in the world could they seek to suppress free speech? And again, who has been suppressing free speech with violence, threats, vandalism ad nauseum?

I didn't agree with the decision to cancel Ali Abunimah speech but when the likes of John K. Wilson call for the resignation of our library director I stand by Danczak-Lyon. I say this because I have seen enough of what the left is doing to this nation. 

Could you imagine the outcry if Danczak-Lyons arranged a book promotion speech by Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter at the library? What would Wilson and the other far left radicals do?

Would Love for EPL to host an

Would Love for EPL to host an evening with  Limbaugh/Coulter. Maybe Mark Steyn to open the show. Come on Evanston let's be inclusive!

I’ve coached a lot of people

I’ve coached a lot of people in their first job. Let’s ask the question, was Lesley Williams “unwilling to carry out a directive from her manager?” Did she display a “disrespectful behavior” toward her supervisor or employer? If so, this is defined by most HR policies as “insubordination.” This usually gets you hauled in for disciplinary action. If you work for a reasonable place, you’re given the opportunity to change your behavior. And stay employed. If you continue to defy directives or act disrespectfully – as unfair, unjust or targeted as it may seem – you usually get fired.

Attack the Messenger

“he is an uber leftist”
“radical far leftists”
“far left radicals”
“I say this because I have seen enough of what the left is doing to this nation.”

Says an Anonymous person on the internet.  
Consider the Source.

In Defense of Myself

This ad hominem attack goes after me for being a progressive, but not the arguments I make against censorship. And I oppose censorship of anyone, for many reasons. I doubt that Danczak Lyons would ever invite a controversial conservative speaker at the library; by contrast, I've invited many conservatives to do events (I'll be doing one next week in DC, but the Evanston Literary Festival and Chicago Book Expo have no funding to bring in outside speakers, and it's hard to find any conservative authors in the Chicago area). I would be happy to work with anyone to arrange a series of debates at the library (or elsewhere) or to have a wide range of opinionated speakers. I would support the right of anyone to have a speech at the library with Coulter or Limbaugh (who calls himself "the most dangerous man in America," by the way), but we probably can't afford them. Many conservatives support repressive legislation and efforts to cut funding to universities in retaliation for offensive events. In fact, if the library in a city as liberal as Evanston can try to ban a left-wing speaker like Abunimah and seek to fire the librarian in retaliation for arranging the event, that indicates how powerful conservative repression of ideas is around the country. If we can't defend intellectual freedom in Evanston, where can we defend it?

Not much defense

Wrong.

My point is that you are claiming censorship because according to you and other far left radicals the Evanston library and specifically Danczak-Lyons is opposed to far left radical programs, speeches and seminars. Your beef isn't only about a Facebook post from Williams or the Abunimah kerfuffle.

Your literary festival is filled with leftist authors and speakers. And you say the Evanston and Chicago literary festival has no funding to bring outside conservative speakers. How is it some of the festival speakers reside outside Illinois such as Osama Alomar, Toi Derricotte, Beth Dooley and Christopher de Bellaigue to name a few. Are there no conservative professors at Northwestern, University of Chicago or DePaul? You know there are.

I did talk about your arguments against censorship. Here it is again.

Wilson wrote that shouting down conservative speakers is wrong. The reason he gave: "It reinforces the delusions of white people that they’re the victims of oppression." He added for good measure: "Republicans around the country are seeking to suppress free speech on campus under the pretense of protecting free speech from authoritarian leftists."

I wonder if you think Danczak-Lyons who is white is under the "delusion" that she's a victim of oppression.

Ironic

It is ironic, Al, that you criticize Mr. Wilson based on his education, past publications, and your perception of his political affiliations. Won't you share that same information about yourself, so that we can use your background and potential biases to similarly evaluate the merits or your argument?

Sounded like good information---but then...

As so often occurs, the author provided information/views/interpretation, that could have [and may yet] added to the discussion. But then had to throw in "Even by the repressive right-wing standards of Garcetti v. Ceballos" which serve as a flag of where he comes from. If included in his identification/disclaimer towards the end, it might have passed. As it is it leaves real questions about how accurate his article is.
That being said, with the statements about the Director and the Board which mirror prior reports, there seems to be strong grounds for the Mayor and others to seriously look into their retention---apart from the handling of the suspension of Ms. Williams---i.e. their statements and handling of communication and personnel matters and apparently a vendetta.

Take a look at the Board --it's not just old white men.

The Board put out a unanimous letter of support for the Director.  Take a look at the membersof the Board of Trustees -- they are a diverse group in age, gender, race, ethnicity, and yet they ALL support Danzcyk Lyon's management of this situation.  They are privy to information that we don't have.  It's easy to attack when the other side cannot legally correct or respond.  The author is taking limited information and making huge assumptions.  

 

The Library Board

If the library board are privy to information that we dont have then let us have that information. This is unfair on Lesley Williams. Yes, the library board have information againt her but will not share it. I just dont buy this one.

typical

That's because of the rampant "junior high school" tactics being taken against her.   Unfair, sneaky, racial, underhanded, etc., etc......typical behavior , and pathetic!

Library Board

They all feel important being on that board...SO, they don't want to make waves, which leads them to support the director in any instance.  If any of them disagreed with Ms. Lyons, then THEY would be next on her hit list.   It's all very clear.   All hail to the writer of this article!   

Look at the whole picture

Totally agree! By law, personnel issues are confidential; and the Board and City are never going to be allowed to just talk about an employee.

​And one point: Lesley has worked in this library for many years. She has supervised, and worked with, literally hundreds of people. Notice that not one employee, past or present, is rushing to talk about what a great librarian she is, what a great boss she is, what a great librarian she is - or even how much work she has done to hire anyone in the library with an eye to diversity and reflection of the community. That sound of crickets you hear is the sound of someone who has been ineffective in her job, and has not provided the kind of service she is now rushing to claim.

​Pretty sad that now a great library is being tarnished by one digruntled employee. Go visit it yourself, and see the amazing range of progras they do, the outreach they do, the materials they provide, and all the people in there!! Don't rely on other people's silliness - go see for yourself, and prepare to be impressed!


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