OPINION: The library board’s censorship is not apolitical

Library building with flag in front
Photo by Travis Gauthier

When the Lafayette Public Library Board of Control voted not to accept a grant to fund a discussion about voting rights because it didn’t include a conservative speaker, some members claimed their intent was to make sure that this government agency remained politically neutral or apolitical. But that’s not the effect of their actions.

The definition of “apolitical” is to be “not interested or involved in politics” or it can also “refer to situations in which people take an unbiased position in regard to political matters without political attitudes, content or bias.”

But that’s the exact opposite of what happened here. Some library board members explicitly stated their concerns that the speakers at this event did not represent what they believe to be Lafayette’s conservative political values but instead were far-left liberals.

Put simply: The board rejected this grant because it felt that the event wasn’t going to be conservative enough based on its interpretation of what being conservative means. It effectively applied a conservative litmus test and decided that it failed. That’s not being apolitical. That’s being political.

And this stance opens up a whole can of worms moving forward. How do we determine if a program is political or not? And if it is political, how do we determine what the appropriate role for the library board is in protecting the library’s apolitical reputation?

The precedent effectively positions the library board as the library’s thought police. The idea that “both sides” need to be represented in events like this makes one wonder what’s supposed to happen for a program about the history of slavery in America or fascism. Will these events now require pro-slavery or pro-fascist speakers to pass muster?

And requiring that “both sides” of the political aisle are represented creates a dynamic where every presentation and discussion about history could devolve into a political debate. Political debates have their place, but not every discussion needs to be a debate.

Then there are questions about what “both sides” even means. The political spectrum in America contains more than just conservatives and liberals. What about libertarians? Or socialists? Or what about those of us in the middle who are sick of ideologues yelling at each other? Will those sides be represented and protected with the same vigor as conservatism?

Libraries are venues for the free expression of thought and the free exchange of information — places where political litmus tests aren’t supposed to exist.

That ideal may be naive in these politicized times. It might be preferable that the library not allow any programming that might be political rather than have a library board imposing its interpretation of what “both sides” means.

The library board’s stated intent for doing this is to rebuild public trust among conservatives. But the effect of its actions is to break trust among the people who have always and will continue to support the library.

And by making a mountain out of this molehill of an issue, I’d be surprised if they’ve accomplished their goal. If anything they may have made this dynamic worse by implying that the library’s staff was out of control in trying to promote a liberal agenda when I have seen no indication to suggest that that was anyone’s intent.

I’m honestly at a bit of a loss for where we go from here. I doubt the library board will change its mind, and even if it did, the damage has already been done. The grant deadline has passed, and the library’s director, Teresa Elberson, resigned just days after this decision. It would be understandable if this were the straw that broke the camel’s back after the last few years of political tension.

I also doubt the outrage will go away quietly. And I doubt that conservatives who don’t trust the library are going to suddenly become supporters because the board stood up against the perceived threat of the so-called liberal agenda.

What makes this all so frustrating is that Lafayette is at a time when our community needs to be rallying together to support and defend our libraries. If the library loses yet another millage in the next year, it’ll be forced to close branches. But instead of uniting, we’re fractured and fighting against each other.

Twenty years ago our community came together to vote to approve the creation of one of the best library systems in the state of Louisiana; and it took a lot of hard work from the likes of past library directors, employees, and board members to bring voters’ vision to fruition. But now we’re stuck in a downward spiral that’s threatening to tear our libraries and our community apart.