Literary circles were up in arms after the Enid Public Library in Enid, Oklahoma, canceled a romance book club and sexual assault awareness book exhibit in response to a narrow vote by the city’s library board to ban exhibitions and programs that present content on sexuality.
However, the Enid Public Library and Garfield County Board of Trustees initially said the book club and sexual assault awareness book exhibit could remain. According to Enid Public Library Acting Director Theri Ray, library staff and city officials later rejected the projects “in accordance with adopted policy.”
“The library director is tasked with implementing the policy as written,” Ray told CNN.
At first glance, the policy, drafted by chairman of the board Joseph Fletcher, is very general. It states that library programs and exhibits must be “nonpartisan” and “shall not have as their object the study of sex, sexual activity, sexual perversion, classifications based on sex, sexual preferences, sexual identity, gender identity or issues that are sexual in nature.
However, Cindy Nguyen, policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma, pointed out that the verbiage was taken specifically from a bill currently stalled in the state legislature. SB 1142 proposes to ban materials that discuss sexuality in classrooms, a concept critics see as similar to the controversial law, dubbed “Don’t Say Gay” by critics, that has made headlines in Florida.
Nguyen and his team have been paying close attention to the events unfolding at Enid.
“We know it’s clearly related,” he told CNN.
The ties do not end there. Last summer, a Pride Month-themed exhibit at the Enid Public Library sparked an outcry from several citizens and was widely discussed at a July 2021 library board meeting.
“We don’t need to bring divisive things into a public building,” one Enid resident said, according to Enid News & Eagle. Fletcher, who ultimately drafted the proposal that became the ban, said the problem was promotion of certain topics, not access to them. (The new library policies would not require removal of materials from the library’s catalog.)
At this year’s April 11 board meeting, attended by Nguyen and Ray, attendees debated what exactly constituted “sexuality” or “sex-based classifications.”
“If we go ahead with this vote, there will never be any showings,” a board member said.
Ray said at the meeting she would have to decide whether to include Mother’s Day and Father’s Day exhibits, for example, since the terms are technically classifications based on gender and sex.
What’s happening in this city of about 50,000 people may not stay local for long, Nguyen warned.
“We look forward to seeing these policies appear in legislatures across the country,” he said. “Anything that can connect to critical race theory or LGBTQ issues, there will be a chilling speech attempt.” (“Chilling speech” is a term that describes attempts to discourage First Amendment speech through vague laws or policies.)
According to a report by the literary and free expression organization PEN America, conservative legislatures have enacted roughly 1,600 book bans in school districts in 26 states since July 2021. That includes 713 bans in Texas, where students and educators are currently rejecting an investigation initiated. by Republican state representative Matt Krause in hundreds of books dealing primarily with race and sexuality.
Nguyen said the generality of policies like Enid’s makes them particularly dangerous, because they can be applied as broadly or as specifically as local leaders see fit. To avoid breaking the rules, libraries may need to decide how broadly concepts like sexuality or race can be interpreted, and which parts of those identities are most likely to be punished.