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Monday, June 12, 2023

Westerly Town Council rejects book banning

Council refuses to support DINO Rep. Sam Azzinaro's book ban bill

By Steve Ahlquist for Uprise RI

In the Rhode Island House of Representatives, Representative Samuel Azzinaro (Democrat, District 37, Westerly) has introduced legislation essentially banning LGBTQIA+ books in public and charter schools and State House libraries. 

Representative Azzinaro wants the law to apply to all Rhode Island libraries. In support of their elected Representative, members of the Westerly Town Council crafted a resolution in urging passage of the legislation. In effect, the resolution would be a message telling the House of Representatives that Westerly residents are in favor of book banning.

At Monday night’s Council meeting, where the proposed resolution was to be voted on, 21 people who live or work in Westerly testified against the resolution. Many of those testifying are people whose work puts them on the front lines protecting America’s fragile First Amendment freedoms – Librarians.

I could have chosen any one of the 21 defenses, mounted by real Americans, opposing theocratic anti-LGBTQIA+ censorship on a Monday night in Westerly, but town resident Brigitte Hopkins, the executive director of Westerly Library in Wilcox Park, seems appropriate:

I’m here tonight to speak in opposition to proposed House Bill H6324, which seeks to amend an existing Rhode Island general law. Intellectual freedom is a core value of the library profession, my profession, and a basic right in our democratic society. Librarians strive to serve the varying interests of every person in their community. We believe in an individual’s right to read, oppose attempts to ban books from libraries, and oppose any legislation that infringes upon Westerly and Rhode Island citizens First Amendment rights. There are materials in libraries, including public and school libraries, that may not be the right fit for one person, but a perfect fit for another. This is the beauty of the library.

Everyone has a right to find materials on our shelves in which they can experience other places, times, and people, but also to find themselves. In 1990, Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop coined the phrase “windows, mirrors and sliding glass doors” to explain how children see themselves in books and how they can learn about the lives of others through literature. When books don’t serve as mirrors to children, they learn a powerful lesson about how they are devalued in society. Books can also serve as windows that give readers a glimpse into the lives and experiences of others, and librarians have the critical task of making sure our young community members have access to books that serve as both windows and mirrors. It is the responsibility of public libraries to guarantee and facilitate access to all expressions of knowledge and intellectual activity, including those which some individuals in our community may consider to be unconventional, unpopular, or unacceptable.

Please note that public libraries do not take on the role of a parent, and it is a parent’s responsibility to decide what materials they will allow their own children to read. No one individual or group should make sweeping decisions that take that process of careful consideration away from the experts, the librarians, and that choice away from readers. As this legislation here in Rhode Island and around the country attempts to challenge and ban books and criminalize libraries and library workers, it is critical to know that libraries do not have obscene materials on their shelves. Obscenity is determined by the court of law. Federal Law, US Code Title 18 section one. Chapter 71, prohibits the possession with intent to sell or distribute obscenity, to sendm ship or receive obscenity, to import obscenity, and to transport obscenity across state borders for purposes of distribution. Therefore, libraries cannot purchase obscenity on the open market and thus cannot have it on their shelves. And publishers cannot sell obscene materials to anyone, including libraries.

We guarantee that there are zero obscene books on the shelves of any library in Rhode Island, and this bill implies that we do, which I find offensive.

Sadly, four people spoke in favor of the resolution, perhaps not realizing that when you start the tiny snowball of censorship rolling, it soon turns into an avalanche that destroys everything.

The Westerly Town Council debated the resolution, and briefly considered amending it to oppose, rather than support the passage of Representative Azzinaro’s bill, but ultimately the Council simply voted 4-2 to send the resolution to the trash bin. One town council member abstained.*

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