Censorship at the Evanston Public Library


On Friday June 2, the Evanston Public Library held a hearing that may lead to the firing of librarian Lesley Williams this week.

Her alleged crime? Posting a message on her personal Facebook page criticizing the library’s efforts at racial equity. This makes it an important case in the wake of Garcetti v. Ceballos, about the right of public employees to criticize the government. The city of Evanston has an unconstitutional rule banning all city employees from posting anything on social media critical of another city employee or city department.

This is also an important issue of intellectual freedom. Information newly revealed shows that there has been extraordinary misconduct at the Evanston Public Library—however, it was committed not by Williams, but by the library director and members of the Board. Internal library documents released in response to an FOIA request (apparently by accident, since the city of Evanston has now removed them from their website) reveal that the library director, Karen Danczak Lyons, and members of its Board of Trustees have plotted to fire Williams since 2014 because she worked with the group Neighbors for Peace to invite Ali Abunimah, to discuss his book, The Battle for Justice in Palestine, at the library. Even though Williams had been seeking a pro-Israel speaker for later in the fall, Danczak Lyons ordered Abunimah’s original speech in August 2014 to be cancelled because the future pro-Israel speaker had not yet been confirmed.

After Danczak Lyons cancelled the speech in the name of “balance,” a huge public outcry forced her to rescind the ban and re-invite Abunimah to speak. Amazingly, Danczak Lyons and the Board blamed this embarrassment on Williams. The documents reveal that in 2014, immediately after the Ali Abunimah controversy, the Board and Danczak Lyons plotted to fire Williams in retaliation for inviting Abunimah and bringing public attention to the censorship.

The 2015 Board evaluation of Danczak Lyons uncovered some shocking comments by unnamed Board members. Most appalling of all, one Board comment revealed that Danczak Lyons had promised to fire Williams: “My only concern here is KDL’s reluctance to let Lesley Williams go. We met with her in an exec. session, at her insistence, and she told us that she was going to do that. This session on was in September, and LW is still in the staff.” This means that a few weeks after the Abunimah debacle, Danczak Lyons announced to the Board of Trustees that she would be firing Williams in retaliation for inviting Abunimah.

Since then, Danczak Lyons has tried to make good on this promise, repeatedly suspending Williams on highly dubious grounds. In 2015, Williams was suspended for 15 days for publicly mentioning the library’s interest in a genealogy collection. Earlier this year, Williams was suspended again for 15 days for reasons that the library has never explained in detail. And now this Facebook post has led to another suspension and possible termination of Williams.

Board president Michael Tannen wrote in an email to Danczak Lyons on August 3, 2014 after the Abunimah event was cancelled, “I really am not happy that the Board and you had to get involved in programming issues but it is for the best. Were this program to have gone forward, there could have been even more backlash, with financial ramifications to boot.” This is clearly an admission that the speaker was cancelled, and that fear of financial retaliation (whether by donors or taxpayers is unclear) was used to justify censorship.

In the same email, Tannen blamed Williams for the controversy: “Sadly, I think the white-hot reaction to this program was known or should have been known by its planner. To an attendee not in the know, the use of an emcee with his own agenda, and a Jewish one at that, further validates the speaker’s views. We shouldn’t allow our library to be used like that, and I mean ‘used’ in both senses.”

Confirmation of a plot to get rid of Williams because of the Abunimah event can be found in numerous other Board comments on the 2015 evaluation of Danczak Lyons.

One Board member noted about Danczak Lyons “she stepped to the fore during the Ali Abunimah debacle in the midst of libelous charges of censorship by her and EPL as an institution. However, the Lesley Williams situation remains festering and unresolved to the disappointment of the Board and probably, of staff as well.”

In the section about staff, a Board member commented, “Lesley Williams’ continued adversarial and incorrigible attitude is what prevents me from giving KDL the highest mark for this metric.”

Another Board comment was this: “Karen is very aware of the policies and employs them to deal with personnel. This may be why she has waited so long to deal with Lesley Williams, wanting to get all her ducks in a row.” A Board member also said, “I am a little concerned that a staff issue related to Ali Abunimah has been allowed to fester.”

One Board member praised the director and directly blamed Williams: “During the Ali Abunimah fiasco, where lw bllndsided her, she kept her dignity and the whole business faded away.”

Amazingly, the groupthink among the Board was so pervasive that not one Board member in the 2015 evaluation made any criticism of Danczak Lyons for her indefensible act of censorship. When that happened, the only way to explain the public outcry against cancelling a speaker was to blame Williams for everything, and to seek revenge against her.

In 2015, Danczak Lyons ordered Williams to clear any “controversial” speakers with her in advance after Williams had worked with a community leader to hold an event with students from We Charge Genocide, an anti-police brutality group. According to Williams, Danczak Lyons “insisted that I remove all references to the program from the library website, and social media and bulletin board; that I not speak at it, that no library personnel be at all involved with it.” When the library director not only is banning controversial events, but banning librarians from speaking at public events, it shows how far the culture of censorship went.

The desire to find any excuse to exact revenge against Williams was revealed in an email from Board Vice-President Margaret Lurie to Danczak Lyons on March 9, 2017, “LW is clearly the thorn in our sides, but at this point, unless she really oversteps her role, we are stuck. Agreed?” Danczak Lyons responded the next morning, “Agreed.” But Danczak Lyons apparently seized upon Williams’ Facebook post as yet another excuse to punish her.

During the 2017 suspension hearing against Williams, the accusations against her were largely kept secret, so that it was impossible for an outsider to know whether she deserved any punishment. And because the 2015 evaluation had been kept secret, no one knew about explicit admission of a vendetta against Williams by Danczak Lyons and the Board. But the latest charges against Williams are based on a Facebook post made by her, so we can assess all the evidence, and it is clear that there is no basis for any punishment.

Williams wrote on her personal Facebook page, “Some organizations are true leaders in practicing equity and inclusion. And some prefer to post signs on their bulletin boards. Evanston Public Library” She posted a photo of a library flier that read, “Free & Equal Access for All.” (Williams thought that the sign had been ordered by the library administration to oppose community critics of the library’s effectiveness at equity, but the sign was created by librarians to welcome all patrons regardless of immigration status.)

Williams is being punished under a city of Evanston rule restricting the use of personal social media accounts by city employees, a rule that is clearly overbroad and unconstitutional. Under the rule, “Postings or user profiles on personal social media accounts must not serve to defame or damage the reputation of fellow City employees or City departments.”

Since the rule goes beyond “defame” (which only covers false statements) to include anything that might “damage the reputation of fellow City employees or City departments” it clearly covers truthful statements, and the truth would not be a defense for any employee brought up on charges under it.

That means any city employee who writes something on social media that’s negative about any city employee would be in violation of this policy. As a result, city employees during a political campaign would only be allowed to support the current mayor and alderman (who are city employees), and could not criticize them because that might damage their reputations. If any city employee wanted to run for alderman, they would have to campaign without ever criticizing anything the city does. That’s just one example of why this extraordinarily broad and repressive city regulation could not pass constitutional muster.

Last year, in Heffernan vs. City of Paterson, the Supreme Court limited the power of government officials to punish public employees in a statement that clearly applies to Williams: “When an employer demotes an employee out of desire to prevent the employee from engaging in political activity that the 1st Amendment protects, the employee is entitled to challenge that unlawful action.”

The only legal grounding for punishing Williams is the ruling in Garcetti v. Ceballos, when the five conservatives on the Supreme Court wrote that its “precedents do not support the existence of a constitutional cause of action behind every statement a public employee makes in the course of doing his or her job.” Instead, public employees are not speaking as citizens when they are speaking to fulfill a responsibility of their job. The test is whether a public employee’s speech is in fact a “government employees’ work product” and “owes its existence to a public employee’s professional responsibilities.” In the Garcetti case, an assistant district attorney was punished for the content of a memo he wrote for his job that was not a public statement.

Even by the repressive right-wing standards of Garcetti v. Ceballos, Williams’ Facebook post cannot be punished. Garcetti v. Ceballos held that the “controlling factor” was whether the speech “owes its existence to a public employee’s professional responsibilities” and is an employer exercising control “over what the employer itself has commissioned or created.” Williams’ comments were definitely not part of her work responsibilities for the library, they were written on her personal Facebook page, and they were made as part of an important public debate about racial equity.

Perhaps even more important than the weak legal position of Evanston in this case is the weak moral position it holds. Evanston likes to think of itself as a liberal city committed to free expression, but the treatment of Williams is a fundamental violation of those espoused values, which are especially critical at a library.

The AAUP along with many other organizations in 1973 issued the joint Statement on Faculty Status of College and University Librarians. Although that statement is aimed at college librarians, the basic values apply to all librarians, whom the statement says “are trustees of knowledge with the responsibility of ensuring the intellectual freedom of the academic community through the availability of information and ideas, no matter how controversial.” According to the statement, “Academic freedom is indispensable to librarians in their roles as teachers and researchers.” As institutions devoted to intellectual liberty, libraries have a special responsibility to protect the freedom of their employees and patrons, more so than other city departments.

The AAUP’s University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee chapter issued a statement on April 27, 2017 against the earlier punishment of Williams: “While it is technically being explained as resulting from ‘unprofessional conduct,’ we recognize that disciplinary action against Williams takes place in context of a broad assault against intellectual freedom.  Cynically wrapping itself in advocacy for ‘balance,’ this assault targets educators like Williams for presenting diverse perspectives intended to engage the full range of the community served by public institutions such as the EPL. Disciplinary action against Williams, then, is part of a general attack on institutions of public education.”

What happened at the Evanston Public Library is also a violation of the American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights, which states that “Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment” and that “Libraries should cooperate with all persons and groups concerned with resisting abridgment of free expression and free access to ideas.” It is difficult to comprehend how punishing a librarian for her personal blog posts critical of the library is compatible with any of these values.

As Joshua Karsh, Williams’ lawyer, noted: “The Library’s attempt to silence Lesley suggests that, in addition to resisting sharing library resources more equitably with all parts of the Evanston community, the Library Director is afraid of words. I would have thought the Library, of all institutions, would protect freedom of expression and recognize it as an inalienable right.”

I should note my own potential personal bias here. I am the co-organizer of the Evanston Literary Festival, for which the library is one of our partners, and Williams has been our primary library contact. Danczak Lyons is not someone I hold in high regard, especially because of the Abunimah case. And the first Evanston Literary Festival in 2015 almost had to be cancelled because of Danczak Lyons’ incompetence and her failure to respond to multiple emails when we asked her to approve the library’s involvement (eventually, we just went ahead and did it without a response from her, but the delays affected the quality of the first Festival). During three years organizing the largest literary event in Evanston, Danczak Lyons has never thanked us, helped us, or even acknowledged the Festival’s existence. Danczak Lyons decided to suspend Williams during the entirety of this year’s Festival, which was a distraction that left the library short-handed. The only time we have ever gotten an email from Danczak Lyons was when a reporter cc’d her in asking for comment about the Festival, and then she immediately offered to talk to the press about an event she had never lifted a finger to help.

However, my personal attitude toward Danczak Lyons doesn’t change the facts I have outlined (and I have never had any opinions about the Library Board until the evidence now revealed). For example, I don’t see any evidence that Danczak Lyons is targeting Williams (the only full-time African-American librarian) because of race, as some critics have claimed (although the Board and the director have certainly concealed evidence of misconduct before).

So what should happen now?

First, the public deserves to know everything. If not for the accidental release of the 2015 evaluation, it’s possible that Danczak Lyons and the Board could have continued to conceal their tracks, and then paid off Williams with a settlement after they got rid of her. The information censored from the city website should be restored, and all of Lyons’ evaluations and other information need to be made public to find out if further misconduct is revealed in them. Every member of the Board ought to explain what they knew about these plans for retaliation against Williams, and how they responded. The Mayor should appoint an independent committee to investigate the library’s problems.

Second, there needs to be a change in policies. The City of Evanston must eliminate its unconstitutional restrictions on the personal speech of city employees. The Evanston Public Library needs to adopt stronger policies on intellectual freedom, and educate the Board and administration about the concept.

Third, there needs to be a change in personnel. People who oppose intellectual freedom, and who retaliate against the employees who oppose censorship, should not be running libraries. New members need to be appointed to the Board, members who respect freedom of speech as well as equity. Michael Tannen, the president of the Board who completely (but secretly) endorsed the censorship of Abunimah and the attacks on Williams, cannot meet that high standard of intellectual freedom.

As for library director Karen Danczak Lyons, she completely disgraced herself by banning a speaker, and then she took revenge against Williams for doing the right thing, and repeatedly smeared Williams’ reputation while lying about the true reasons for her crusade to fire Williams. She has no credibility, and she has no integrity. Danczak Lyons needs to go.