Cat Urbigkit: Let Freedom Read

Columnist Cat Urbigkit writes, "The Wyoming Freedom Caucus proposes to continue the push to criminalize librarians for what it views as obscene materials in public libraries, in essence using the coercive power of government to impose its set of values on all the state’s citizens."

Cat Urbigkit

August 01, 20238 min read

Cat urbigkit cropped scaled
(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

Michelangelo Buonarroti’s marble sculpture of the Biblical shepherd David is viewed as a masterpiece of Italian Renaissance art, but it remains controversial some 500 years after itscompletion because of concerns that David’s full nudity is obscene.

Fig-leaf advocates contend that the sculpture is obscene and we must protect children and the public from seeing such things, while sidestepping the opportunity to engage in a discussion of cultural norms, religious and art history, with contrasting views of nude depictions representing honor and virtue, immorality and vice.

Does nudity signify pureness and innocence? Or is it shameful and sinful? Or is nudity morally neutral? For most of us, it depends on the context of the depiction and the moral weight of our views.

The Wyoming Freedom Caucus (whose contrasting focus and name is an oxymoron), proposes to be the morality parent for Wyoming’s citizens. They cite the Wyoming Constitution’s Article 1, Section 20, “As the health and morality of the people are essential to their well-being, and to the peace and permanence of the state, it shall be the duty of the legislature to protect and promote these vital interests by such measures for the encouragement of temperance and virtue, and such restrictions upon vice and immorality of every sort, as are deemed necessary to the public welfare.”

The caucus proposes to continue the push to criminalize librarians for what it views as obscene materials in public libraries, in essence using the coercive power of government to impose its set of values on all the state’s citizens.

The caucus is boosted by controversies involving the Campbell County Public Library, which has been Wyoming’s epicenter for clashes over LGBTQ issues and puberty/sexual education materials, including:

• threats over a scheduled magician’s performance – not over the content of the performance, but because the magician is transgender;

• cutting funding for the libraries because of its refusal to remove certain books;

• promoting criminal prosecution of librarians for obscenity because of certain books in the library collection;

• altering the library’s mission to include an undefined “community standards” provision;

• changing the collections policy to ban depictions of nudity in the children and young adult sections, while requiring that the library director “shall ensure” that children can’t access those materials in any other sections of the library; and

• firing the library’s director for resisting censorship efforts.

While the library board may have intended to shield teens and children from sexually-explicit content in certain books, the library’s policies now prohibit any depictions of “nudity” in the library’s collections for minors. Thus, even Michelangelo’s David is not welcome. 

The board’s policy changes have also resulted in a change to how it handles contested books. The library’s challenge procedure involves a patron filing a complaint to have a book reviewed, but the patron would have to certify that they had actually read the book at issue. The policy shift now puts the impetus on the library director to weed through the entire collection to ensure that each book, magazine, pamphlet, video, etc. conforms to the new standard adopted by the board.

One of a library board’s primary tasks is uphold the institution’s commitment to intellectual freedom and the freedom of access to information. The Campbell County Public Library Board turned this concept on its head – instead of promoting free access to ideas and information, it has become an advocate for censorship. This is what happens when a board adopts policy recommendations originating with the Liberty Counsel, a Florida-based organization that seeks to promote evangelical Christian values. 

A Massachusetts-based anti-LGBT group, MassResistance, bragged that it linked up Campbell County library board members with Liberty Counsel, and when the library board fired the library director last week, MassResistance rejoiced that the “unhinged pro-pornography leftists” had been defeated.

MassResistance continued: “For some frightening reason, a large number of libraries have attracted dysfunctional and sexually deviant people who should not be around children. Then as library employees they are driven further by the poisonous American Library Association’s stream of sexual propaganda – which normal people would simply ignore.”

The Campbell County library board also cut its ties to the American Library Association (ALA), the professional development organization for our nation’s library staffs and boards, as well as the Wyoming Library Association (WLA), our state-level library association. 

Now the Wyoming Freedom Caucus has called for WLA to part ways with the ALA as well. ALA is a target of both MassResistance and the Liberty Counsel, with the latter group’s founder claiming, “The American Library Association is now actively grooming innocent children for sexual abuse and causing irreversible harm to them” by promoting books about non-traditional families and providing inclusive events.

Unlike most of the people complaining about ALA and WLA, I’ve been a member of both, and I’ve attended one of the ALA’s national conferences (in which I needed extra luggage for all those books I brought home). The number of educational programs and information exchanges offered on the conference schedule was stunning, but one of my favorite memories from that conference was attending sessions focused on designing library spaces to encourage early child brain development, something I’m pleased to see Wyoming libraries implementing statewide. 

Our libraries don’t adopt every idea presented at ALA gatherings, and I would hate to see the professionals involved in our state’s libraries hindered in access to these educational opportunities by political interference by those who want to impose their religious beliefs on others. That Wyoming conservatives (myself included) don’t agree with the policies advocated by the current ALA president isn’t a good reason to drop all of Wyoming’s connections to ALA. Wyoming libraries don’t take their marching orders from ALA. Besides, the new ALA president, Cindy Hohl of Kansas City, Missouri, takes over the helm early next year – a change I’m looking forward to.

Over the years I’ve also attended several of WLA’s annual conferences, and mercy what a group that is! I looked to see what programming is being offered this year and found sessions about providing bookmobile services for vulnerable populations, how telehealth can be utilized in libraries for patrons without broadband access in areas distant from in-person medical services, sessions on intellectual freedom, aligning PreK-3rd grade library programming to the science of reading, and a session on cyber security awareness from the Buffalo High School Science Team. What a bunch of radicals!

The Campbell County Public Library has been a welcoming place for all with Terri Lesley as its devoted director, and I’m disappointed that the library board voted to fire her, with board member Charlie Anderson casting the lone vote for her retention 

There is still a page up on the library’s website that reads: “A singular obligation of a public library is to reflect within its collection differing points of view on controversial or debatable subjects. The Campbell County Public Library System does not promote particular beliefs or views, nor does the selection of an item express or imply an endorsement of the author's viewpoint.” But Terri Lesley’s name is also on that same page, so I expect the statement to be removed as well. 

I stand with folks like Terri, and my fellow columnist Rod Miller, in support of the First Amendment and against censorship. Library boards, legislators, any government at all, should not seek to limit freedom of thought, expression, or hinder an individual’s ability to received information from a wide variety of viewpoints.

It’s about freedom. Let freedom read.

Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher who lives on the range in Sublette County, Wyoming. Her column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily.

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Cat Urbigkit

Public Lands and Wildlife Columnist