Censorship

The Censorship Story I Can’t Tell You: This Week’s Book Censorship News, March 25, 2022

There’s a really horrifying censorship story unfolding in Anchorage, Alaska. But much as I wish I could tell it, part of the reason the true depths of what’s going on there aren’t being shared broadly is because of how officials are using their state’s FOIA laws to keep that information impossible to access.

The story is out of the playbook we’re seeing across the country, and it’s destroying the Anchorage Public Library.

Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson won a very tight mayoral race in late May 2021. Of note were the tactics his team took to intimidate and suppress voters, including stationing people outside voting areas to watch who was going in and out of those areas. He is radically anti-LGBTQ.

Among the first tasks for Bronson was appointing a new director for the Anchorage Public Library. The most recent had retired, and the first candidate Bronson put forward was Sami Graham. Graham, who had failed in her attempts to win a school board seat the previous election, had no library experience, no library degree, and had reached out to Bronson’s transition team about wanting to get involved somehow. She is a proud conservative.

After backlash from the public, the Assembly did not confirm Graham’s appointment. Bronson needed to find another person, and he did immediately. This candidate was Judy Eledge who, coincidentally, also lost a school board election earlier in the year (indeed, in trying to pack the Anchorage Public Schools school board with a conservative slate, more than one did not succeed).

Eledge also has no library experience, but her choice proved a little less controversial than Graham, despite her outspokenness as a conservative. She was the President of the Anchorage Republican Women’s Club. She was a Republican elector for Alaska in the Electoral college.

Despite the fact the job required library experience and a library degree, Eledge was approved by the Assembly without being qualified for the role.

One of the powers of the Anchorage Mayor is that they can appoint who sits on various boards within city departments. Up to 150 board positions are available annually, and all board seats end after members have served for three years. In October of 2021, numerous library board seats were available for appointment.

Bronson packed the board with his friends, including Dennis Dupras, a state trooper (who has posted queerphobic, all lives/blue lives matter material on Facebook), Doug Weimann (with right wing affiliations), Travis Gularte (proudly posting right wing social media posts), and Deb Bronson (his wife). A fifth appointment was that of a teenager, Denali Tshibaka. She’ll become important shortly. She serves as part of Anchorage’s Youth Advisory Committee.

The Anchorage Public Library board notes begin to shed light into what Eledge aimed to do in her role as Director. Among those were to “ensure a safe environment for employees and others to have honest discussions with differing views and opinions,” as mentioned in the October minutes. She met with leaders of homeschool cooperatives and began to invite them into library partnerships (the results of which aren’t clear). Likewise, Eledge began to talk about the library’s strategic plan, which, coincidentally, is under the Mayor’s direction.

When December rolled around, the new board was introduced by none other than Sami Graham. It’s then things took a real turn. Eledge brought a Bible Story Hour to the library, allowing her pro-life, right-wing friend Wendy Perkins to partner with one of the librarians on this event.

Denali Tshibaka brought up “inappropriate books” during this initial meeting. Remember Denali is the teen appointed to the board for youth input. Perhaps it’s pertinent to mention that she is the daughter of Kelly Tshibaka, who ran a Trump-endorsed campaign to win Lisa Murkowski’s U.S. Senate seat and lost. December’s meeting minutes note that Denali found “inappropriate” books in the children’s section, specifically noting those were transgender books. Gularte bolstered her discussion by mentioning something about “men in dresses” being derogatory. Denali’s task for the January board meeting would be to research these inappropriate books and present on them to the board.

In January, Denali gave a presentation to the board. Below are the minutes:

Image from the January 2022 anchorage public library board minutes.

The board discussed options and landed on reorganizing the books “via age group” would be enough. Interestingly, Weimann noted he was having the same problem at his elementary school with “inappropriate” books.

This comes to light because Lily Spiroski, a teenager serving on Anchorage’s Youth Advisory Committee, stepped out of their role. They felt that Bronson’s leadership was hateful toward queer people, and this move at the library showed the ways in which censorship of queer voices played out under his leadership (remember: he appointed all of those in support of this “reorganization” project).

Judy Eledge actually stepped down from her role as director in November, though she still played some kind of role thereafter. Utilizing the powers granted to her by the city charter, Anchorage Municipal Manager Amy Demboski took over control of the library as director in January. Dembowski wields her power in that role in some fascinating ways, namely in the fact she’s issued gag orders to staff and administration in the library.

And it’s here where the story I’d been hoping to tell falls apart.

On Tuesday, February 8, I submitted a FOIA request to the city of Anchorage. To do so requires sending the request to department heads, meaning that to FOIA information about the library, that request goes to the library director. As Demboski has ceded Eledge, this meant the FOIA request went to her.

I requested the following:

Image of the text of Kelly Jensen's FOIA request to Anchorage.

In the above-linked piece, Demboski reminds the library staff and administration that they’re not allowed to use email to communicate among city departments. This came February 10, two days after my request was submitted. It’s likely a coincidence, but the message itself is chilling: staff cannot communicate.

A series of emails followed between myself and Demboski, including an initial response that no records could be quickly found. I would be able to continue to request, but because it would be time-consuming, there would likely be a fee assessed. Oh, and I needed to provide a list of “all staff” noted in my request, which I copy and pasted from the library’s website (seems like “all staff” wouldn’t be a hard thing to search on their end, but I support I can copy/paste).

The note came back with the estimated fee: $940.

For being unable to find anything in an initial search to suggesting that the above search would take over 23 staff hours is certainly something. Without a budget for FOIA requests — I’d have paid up to $30 or so on my own — I’m unable to access information that should be publicly available.

But this is precisely what a corrupt system wants to happen. By making FOIA financially inaccessible, the full story can’t be told.

What’s going on in Anchorage is what’s happening in public libraries around the country. Among them, ImagineIf in Kalispell, Montana. In Pikes Peak, Colorado, the director left after the city council appointed a conservative board. The director at Mid-Continent Public Library in Missouri left for a similar reason, as his new right-wing board rejected inclusive programming.

This Week’s Call to Action

Tune into this rock star panel of authors who’ve had books challenged, alongside professor Emily Knox, who is a scholar on censorship. The panel is Tuesday night, March 29, at 7:30 pm eastern.

For more ways to take action against censorship, use this toolkit for how to fight book bans and challenges, as well as this guide to identifying fake news. Then learn how and why you may want to use FOIA to uncover book challenges.

Book Censorship News: March 25, 2022

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