Last week, the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression joined with the National Coalition Against Censorship, the Association of American Publishers, and PEN American Center to send a letter to the West Bend (Wisconsin) Common Council criticizing its dismissal of four members of the West Bend Library Board who refused to remove controversial books from the young adult section of the library.

‘The Common Council has made a terrible mistake,’ said ABFFE President Chris Finan. ‘It has punished four dedicated public servants for trying to ensure that the library serves everyone in the community. Free speech is under attack in West Bend.’

In February, two patrons complained that the library’s young adult section included both fiction and nonfiction about gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender issues. They also demanded the removal of all ‘pornographic’ books from the young adults section, including Brent Hartinger’s Geography Club (HarperCollins), Stephan Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and Esther Drill’s Deal With It! A Whole New Approach to Your Body, Brain, and Life as a gURL (both Simon & Schuster).

The conflict reached the Common Council on April 21 when West Bend Mayor Kristin Deiss submitted the names of four current members of the library board for new three-year terms. According to newspaper reports, the Common Council voted not to approve the mayor’s recommendation to reappoint volunteers Tom Fitz, Mary Reilly-Kliss, James Pouros, and Alderman Nick Dobberstein to the library board because the majority of Council members disagreed with the library board members’ viewpoints. According to The West Bend Daily News, Alderman Terry Vrana said he voted to remove four members of the library board because he ‘disagree[s] with them’ and objects to ‘their ideology.’ The council voted 5 – 3 to dismiss the library board members.

Dismissed board member Mary Reilly-Kliss is a retired teacher who works part time at Fireside Books & Gifts in West Bend. Another Fireside part-timer, Patti Geidel, serves on the library board but was not up for reappointment.

In the letter to the West Bend Common Council, ABFFE and the other free speech groups emphasized that the dismissal threatened free speech in two ways: by punishing the library board members for attempting to apply objective criteria in the selection of books and by pressuring the library to remove the controversial books.

‘The Constitution prohibits a public library from censoring material because some people find it offensive or distasteful,’ the groups wrote. ‘As many courts have noted, the public library’s role is to serve the entire community, not to reflect or cater to any particular viewpoint.’

Noting that public libraries are for everyone, the groups continued, ‘That doesn’t mean that every book is appropriate for every patron. On the contrary, professional librarians choose books to reflect a diversity of topics and viewpoints that meet the needs and interests of all patrons. Those who object to the books are entitled to their views and need not read anything that offends them, but they have no right to impose their opinions on others. If parents have concerns about their own children’s reading choices, is it their responsibility to direct and supervise them, not to expect the library to reflect their views about parenting. No one is forced to read a book because it sits on a library shelf.’


American Booksellers Association
American Booksellers Association

ABA is a not-for-profit trade group devoted to supporting indie bookstores through education, advocacy, marketing support, and business services.