Thursday, October 02, 2008

Sarah Palin's Book Banning, and Why It Matters

Note: I'm the author of Barack Obama: This Improbable Quest (and Patriotic Correctness: Academic Freedom and Its Enemies), but I'm not part of the Obama campaign.

Each year, the American Library Association marks Banned Books Week to raise awareness about censorship in our public libraries. This year's Banned Books Week runs from September 27 to October 4, and it has a special significance because the Vice Presidential Debate between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin falls in the middle of it on October 2. It's also significant because of allegations that as mayor, Palin questioned the Wasilla, Alaska town librarian repeatedly about banning books in the library, and then after being rebuffed, tried to fire the librarian.

Palin told ABC News' Charles Gibson: "I never banned a book, never desired to ban a book." However, that's not true. According a New York Times report which named two sources, in 1995 Palin was on the city council of Wasilla and objected to the book "Daddy's Roommate" being allowed in the town library. Laura Chase, who was Palin's campaign manager in her 1996 run for mayor, suggested that Palin read the book. Chase says, "Sarah said she didn't need to read that stuff. It was disturbing that someone would be willing to remove a book from the library and she didn't even read it." Yet even after the New York Times revealed this fact, Palin continues to lie about it: "I certainly never advocated banning books. This was a ridiculous, false claim."

Once she was mayor, Palin expressed extraordinary interest in book censorship, speaking about it three times to the town librarian, Mary Ellen Emmons, and asking what she would do if Palin wanted her to remove books.

The local newspaper, the Frontiersman, reported in 1996, "Emmons said Palin asked her on Oct. 28 if she would object to censorship, even if people were circling the library in protest about a book." Emmons noted at the time, "She asked me if I would object to censorship, and I replied 'Yup'." Later that year, Palin again asked Emmons about book censorship.

Palin now claims she was asking a "rhetorical question": "When I became mayor in our town, it was the issue of: what if a parent came into our local public library and asked for a book to be taken off the shelf, what's the policy?" But back in 1996, Emmons explicitly contradicted that possibility: "This is different than a normal book-selection procedure or a book-challenge policy. She was asking me how I would deal with her saying a book can't be in the library."

A few months after her questions about book banning, Palin tried to fire Emmons. But Palin had to reverse course after a public outcry in support of Emmons. We will never know if Palin tried to fire a librarian who refused to censor books, or if Palin was simply firing a town employee who had not supported her campaign, and Palin has been kept from inquiring journalists who might ask her about this. Either answer should disturb anyone who thinks librarians are professionals who should not be subject to the whims of petty politicians.

Contrary to one false email circulating around the internet, Palin apparently never tried to ban any specific books as mayor. Perhaps the public's reaction to her effort to fire the town librarian prevented her from putting any further pressure to censor books. However, as former New York City mayor Ed Koch observed, "Any time someone goes to the library and says, 'I want to ban books,' and the librarian says 'no,' and she threatens to fire them -- that's scary."
Palin didn't learn much from the reaction to her attempts to fire the town librarian about respecting the professionals who educate the public. In a 2006 questionnaire from the Eagle Forum during her race for governor, Palin was asked: Will you support the right of parents to opt out their children from curricula, books, classes, or surveys, which parents consider privacy-invading or offensive to their religion or conscience?

Palin replied, "Yes. Parents should have the ultimate control over what their children are taught."

This response should frighten every teacher in the country, and every parent concerned about a quality education. Allowing parents to ban their children from reading certain books, or even from attending entire classes and subjects, is worrisome. Imagine if every creationist parent was allowed to ban the teaching of the facts of evolution to their children in science classes, as Palin urges. What would this mean? Would parents be able to ban their children from required sciences classes? Would parents be able to have teachers fired who dared to mention word "evolution" without first sending their children out of the classroom? What about parents who demand that history teachers never allow any criticism of America or Christianity in class? The result of Palin's approach would be teachers afraid to allow anything controversial to be said in class. Yet Palin's radical stand for total parent control over the content of public schooling has received zero attention.

During a 2006 gubernatorial debate, Palin was asked about teaching creationism or evolution, and she replied, "I am a proponent of teaching both." This kind of relativism, which asserts an equivalence between accurate science and religious myth, is contrary to the concept of a quality education.

Alaska's voluntary educational standards for science classes even in grades 3-5 expect that "students develop an understanding of how science explains changes in life forms over time, including genetics, heredity, the process of natural selection, and biological evolution and that the student demonstrates an understanding of the theories regarding the origin and evolution of the universe." But the Republican Party of Alaska's platform declares: "We support giving Creation Science equal representation with other theories of the origin of life. If evolution is taught, it should be presented as only a theory."

As someone who might hold the highest office in the land, Palin needs to answer questions about her record of opposition to First Amendment freedoms. During the Bush Administration, the Union of Concerned Scientists found "a well established pattern of suppression and distortion of scientific findings by high-ranking Bush administration political appointees." A survey of 3,400 federal scientists found that 1,100 expressed fear of retaliation if they blow the whistle on politicized research. If Palin was willing to attack the freedom of ideas and the professional roles of librarians and teachers throughout her political career, how can we believe that she would restore intellectual integrity to our government if she becomes president?

This year, Banned Books Week serves as a reminder that politicians like Sarah Palin still believe that censorship is popular. The American people today must follow the example of Wasilla residents who defended their town librarian from Palin a decade ago. We need to stand up and remind our public officials that protecting the First Amendment is one of their highest duties.

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