Monday, September 8, 2008

Sarah Palin and censorship

The rumor has spread that Governor Palin attempted to get the librarian of Wasilla, AK, to remove various books. Here is the original source, excerpted from a letter written by a woman named Anne Kilkenny:

While Sarah was Mayor of Wasilla she tried to fire our highly respected City Librarian because the Librarian refused to consider removing from the library some books that Sarah wanted removed. City residents rallied to the defense of the City Librarian and against Palin's attempt at out-and-out censorship, so Palin backed down and withdrew her termination letter. People who fought her attempt to oust the Librarian are on her enemies list to this day.

First of all, Anne Kilkenny is a real person, according to the wonderful, the Urban Legends webpage--also according to various news agencies that have spoken to her. According to Mudflats, an Alaskan blog, "Kilkenny has talked to the New York Times and National Public Radio, and is being hounded by the flock of press that has descended on our usually sleepy ‘little’ state." The letter was apparently originally sent by Ms. Kilkenny to about 40 friends and relatives and it has traveled far and wide since then.

Most of the letter is either verifiable from other sources or clearly one person's opinion of another person, but this story about the library is a little more slippery. It has also been embellished with the names of books that Governor Palin supposedly wanted removed. That list included some of the Harry Potter books, which is odd since the Harry Potter books weren't published at the time, according to

FactCheck gives a slightly more nuanced/neutral view of the situation which, by its nature, does not lend itself to an absolute grasp of truth. Here is their take on the events:

It’s true that Palin did raise the issue with Mary Ellen Emmons, Wasilla’s librarian, on at least two occasions. Emmons flatly stated her opposition both times. But, as the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman (Wasilla’s local paper) reported at the time, Palin asked general questions about what Emmons would say if Palin requested that a book be banned. According to Emmons, Palin "was asking me how I would deal with her saying a book can't be in the library." Emmons reported that Palin pressed the issue, asking whether Emmons' position would change if residents were picketing the library. Wasilla resident Anne Kilkenny, who was at the meeting, corroborates Emmons' story, telling the Chicago Tribune that "Sarah said to Mary Ellen, 'What would your response be if I asked you to remove some books from the collection?' "

Palin characterized the exchange differently, initially volunteering the episode as an example of discussions with city employees about following her administration's agenda. Palin described her questions to Emmons as “rhetorical,” noting that her questions "were asked in the context of professionalism regarding the library policy that is in place in our city." Actually, true rhetorical questions have implied answers (e.g., “Who do you think you are?”), so Palin probably meant to describe her questions as hypothetical or theoretical. We can't read minds, so it is impossible for us to know whether or not Palin may actually have wanted to ban books from the library or whether she simply wanted to know how her new employees would respond to an instruction from their boss. It is worth noting that, in an update, the Frontiersman points out that no book was ever banned from the library’s shelves.

Moreover, although Palin fired Emmons as part of a "loyalty" purge, she rehired Emmons the next day, and Emmons remained at her job for two-and-a-half more years. Actually, Palin initially requested Emmons’ resignation in October 1996, four days before the public discussion of censorship. That was at the same time she requested that all four of Wasilla’s department heads resign. Palin described the requests as a loyalty test and allowed all four department heads to retain their positions. But on Jan. 30, 1997, three months after the censorship discussion, Palin informed Emmons and Wasilla’s police chief, Irv Stambaugh, that they would be fired. According to the Chicago Tribune, Palin did not list censorship as a reason for Emmons’ firing. Palin rehired Emmons the following day. Emmons continued to serve as librarian until August 1999, when the Chicago Tribune reports that she resigned.

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