After the Lafayette, La., public library system received a small grant to host a program on voting rights, library director Teresa Elberson got to work.
She planned to use the $2,700 to purchase copies of two books on Black history and civil rights and to hire a pair of college professors to lead community discussions on the titles.
But before copies could even arrive at the libraries inLouisiana’s Cajun country, the agency’s board shut the whole thing down — with one member claiming that the “extremely far left” speakers would fail to “represent the other side.”
“We’re trying to keep this apolitical and not alienate anybody,” board director Doug Palombo told the Acadiana Advocate, which first reported on the body’s vote to kill the grant. “Things like this are fine as long as they’re not loaded, stacked to one side’s agenda, whether it’s right or left.”
A week later, Elberson has resigned, the board has doubled down on its decision, and advocacy and library groups in Louisiana and across the country are accusing the group of censorship and racism.
“Teaching the Lafayette community about the historical and ongoing struggle for voting rights in the Black community is not divisive,” Alanah Odoms, the executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana, said in a statement on Tuesday. “On the contrary, it’s affirming for the communities that have been harmed.”
The episode is another entry into the public and often messy conflicts over free speech in American public libraries, which have long seen themselves turned into political battlefields over what books — and ultimately, what views — should be made available or promoted to the public.
In states like Colorado, Missouri and Maine, lawmakers have proposed bills that would punish librarians who offer “age-inappropriate sexual material.” Conservative groups have protested the practice of “drag queen story time,” in which a costumed performer reads to children to foster greater acceptance.
Such an practice also faced controversy in Lafayette two years ago, with the state ACLU eventually filing a federal lawsuit against the library board after it sought to ban the event.
Elberson first introduced the possibility of a voting rights program to the board in December, when she mentioned a grant offered by the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities called “Who Gets to Vote?”
The initiative was meant to engage Louisiana residents on the history of voting and voter suppression, from women’s suffrage to ongoing debates over voter ID laws and felon disenfranchisement. But the board argued that some more current topics were “political and potentially controversial in nature,” it said in a statement this week.
Maintaining that the library “should remain a politically neutral, or apolitical, entity,” the board instructed Elberson to hire “one speaker from each side of the aisle” for the discussion program, so “opposing positions” would be fairly represented.
At another meeting a month later, Elberson told the board she had found two academics to lead talks on the selected books tied to the grant: Theodore Foster, an assistant professor of African American history at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, and Chris Edelson, assistant professor of government at American University.
But both facilitators, Palombo said, were “clearly from the same side of the political debate.” Because Elberson “chose to disregard our very clear and reasonable directive,” the body voted, 5 to 2, to reject the voting rights grant and library programming entirely.
“This Board is determined to bring political neutrality back to our Library System,” Palombo said in a statement. “It is a government institution that belongs to all Lafayette Parish residents and as such, it should never even appear to favor one political view over another.”
Yet Foster, who had written a discussion guide for one of the two selected books, said the decision was disappointing, particularly “given the history of African Americans and voting rights.”
“It speaks to a larger anti-intellectualism that we’ve seen across the country that would seek to restrict access to broaden the public’s literacy about the right to vote,” he told the Advocate.
Others had even sharper words.
Louisiana state Sen. Gerald Boudreaux (D), who represents part of Lafayette, said that representing “the other side” of political debate on voting rights would amount to bringing in someone who would express support for Jim Crow laws or the Ku Klux Klan.
“I agree we do need to discuss the other side,” he said in a statement to KATC, “as history has proven that if we ignore the past we will be doomed to relive those dark days.”