Image: Brooke Dawson

At the conclusion of the Chemung County Legislature’s Budget Committee meeting on Monday, Legislator Joe Brennan raised concern over programming at the Steele Memorial Library in Elmira. Specifically, Brennan urged the Legislature to take action against the Chemung County Library District because it periodically hosts “Drag Queen Story Time.”

The video below is from Monday’s meeting, and the image is from the of Legislator Joe Brennan’s official Facebook page:

As evidenced by my expression and comments at the meeting, I was shocked for several reasons.

The Legislature has no power or control over the Library District

First, Chemung County government has absolutely no oversight of public libraries in Chemung County.

Prior to a public referendum on November 8, 2005, libraries in Chemung County were funded through local property taxes, something that was included as a separate line-item on the county budget.

However, the referendum, which passed overwhelmingly, created a special “library district”:

The Library District is governed by an elected Board of Trustees and is funded through a combination of its own tax levy, state grants, private donations and a P.I.L.O.T. (“payment in lieu of taxes”) agreement. The Library District’s P.I.L.O.T. was not given by the Chemung County Industrial Development Agency, but rather another statewide economic development agency.

In other words,the people who live in Chemung County have the power to influence what happens at the Library District through their votes for Trustees and the budget – not the Legislature, a body which does not have any over control over it.

Censorship violates our First Amendment rights to free speech and expression

The First Amendment guarantees every person in the United States has, among other things, the rights to free speech and expression.

The United States Supreme Court has held on numerous occasions that the rights to free speech and expression do not simply allow people to freely share information, but freely receive it as well:

The protection of the Bill of Rights goes beyond the specific guarantees to protect from Congressional abridgment those equally fundamental personal rights necessary to make the express guarantees fully meaningful.I think the right to receive publications is such a fundamental right.

The dissemination of ideas can accomplish nothing if otherwise willing addressees are not free to receive and consider them. It would be a barren marketplace of ideas that had only sellers and no buyers.

Justice William Brennan, Lamont v. Postmaster General, 381 U.S. 301 (1965)

These freedoms are particularly critical when it comes to libraries, as reflected in Library Bill of Rights:

In addition, the American Library Association (ALA) has endorsed a “Right to Read” policy which urges librarians to strenuously resist governmental suppression of ideas and materials.

We believe that free communication is essential to the preservation of a free society and a creative culture. We believe that these pressures toward conformity present the danger of limiting the range and variety of inquiry and expression on which our democracy and our culture depend. We believe that every American community must jealously guard the freedom to publish and to circulate, in order to preserve its own freedom to read. We believe that publishers and librarians have a profound responsibility to give validity to that freedom to read by making it possible for the readers to choose freely from a variety of offerings.

The Right to Read policy includes seven critical provisions:

The Library Bill of Rights and the ALA’s Right to Read policy apply not only to books, but also to live programming at the library such as Drag Queen Story Time. More fundamentally, the freedom for people to share and receive this type of program is clearly and fully protected by the First Amendment.

As such, a suggestion that the Legislature pass a resolution aimed at forcing the Library District to stop providing this constitutionally-protected content is extremely problematic, if not outright unlawful.

The elected Library District Trustees, in an exercise of their power which is wholly independent from Chemung County, has chosen to host Drag Queen Story Time. The content of Drag Queen Story Time is protected by the First Amendment, and the Library Bill of Rights and Right to Read policy urges libraries to refrain from allowing the government to censor its materials. If the Legislature were to act in the way Legislator Brennan suggested at Monday’s meeting, we would be asking Library District Trustees to not only violate their own rules and policies, but also the U.S. Constitution itself.

Some people reading this post may dislike – even despise – the idea of Drag Queen Story Time or the fact that LGTBQ+ reading materials can be found at the library. However, ask yourself this…what if the suggestion was to pressure the Library District from providing programming or content about the Civil War? Or Christianity? Or the Holocaust, the Second Amendment, 9-11, the Great Depression or slavery? This is why resistance to censorship at our libraries and in society at large is so critical.

First Amendment arguments have recently been used to promote several political and social matters. Its protections were cited as justification for Neo-Nazi rallies in Richmond, Virginia and other communities, the attempted use of Confederate Flag imagery on government-issued license plates, the elimination of many regulations over big corporations and the redefinition of campaign finance laws.

The irony is that in matters like this, proponents of censorship seek to minimize the scope of First Amendment protections. In other words, the argument for expansive, powerful freedoms of speech and expression are conveniently cast to the side whenever the situation requires it. This type of constitutional fluidity (or straight up cherry-picking) is certainly not what our nation’s founders had in mind.

Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously stated that we need “more speech, not enforced silence.” It’s expected that we won’t like all speech, but the First Amendment requires us to allow as much as possible of it to be expressed regardless of our personal views.

Drag Queens are not scary

Without question, Legislator Brennan’s remarks about Drag Queens and the LBGTQ+ community – along with the snickering of many legislators sitting around the table Monday night – was what I found most bothersome.

Chemung County has faced a growing population decline for decades. Building a vibrant community is not only about providing jobs, but also creating a welcoming, inclusive environment that makes people want to live here. Basic camaraderie, not divisiveness, is what we desperately need most.

The creation of this environment starts with our leaders. Rather than mocking the Library District’s program, legislators and other community leaders should come to the Steele Memorial Library on November 14th to find out what its all about. From some of the clips and photos I have seen and embedded below, it looks to be an incredibly fun time!

Video and photos from Brooke Dawson

Christina Sonsire