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Sonoma County Library Commission may consider removing Black Lives Matters, Pride flags from branches

In response to concerns the community “could get upset,” the Sonoma County Library Commission will discuss establishing a policy on what regional library branches are allowed to post and display in individual locations. The policy could dictate the types of banners and flags library branches are able to hang, including Black Lives Matters and Pride flags.

The commission has directed library staff to prepare background materials for a future Library Commission meeting, said Sonoma County Library Communications Manager and Public Information Officer Ray Holley. No action has been taken at this time and more information will be available at a later date. However, the discussion could come as early as the Feb. 2023 meeting and is a response to an orchestrated effort of a handful of commissioners, who, since Oct. 2022 have expressed discomfort over not having a policy in place.

The Library has a policy for internal postings by outside entities, Interim Library Director Erika Thibault said in the Jan. 4, 2023 Library Commission meeting. This policy prevents items of hate speech from being posted in the library by outside patrons. It also allows for nonpartisan and nonsectarian information, Thibault said.

But, the policy, as Rohnert Park Commissioner Barbara Mackenzie noted, does not dictate what branch managers can display in each branch.

“The issue is with political and semi-political posters and banners,” Mackenzie said during the Jan. 4, 2023 commission meeting. Mackenzie specifically cited the Black Lives Matters banners and “large Pride posters in and around the branches” as examples of the types of posters and banners a so-called internal posting policy would need to cover.

At least two commissioners, including Mackenzie, and Petaluma’s appointee, Paul Heavenridge, expressed consternation over a lack of policy that allows the Black Lives Matter and Pride flags to hang in the branches indefinitely.

“My concern is that there is no policy,” Heavenridge said. “The community, which can get upset...could come in and post something hate-filled. If people get upset, we can say, ‘Well, this is our policy.’ Right now it’s just up to the branch manager.”

Thibault said branch managers work closely with the library’s division manager on seasonal book displays, giving each branch a similar look and feel throughout the county.

“When patrons complain we refer them to the statement of inclusivity, which was approved by you in Feb. 2022,” Thibault told the commission.

Holley added, “branch managers use their own discretion on whether to display the banners. I’m not 100% sure, but I believe they are displayed in all branches.”

The Black Lives Matters banners were first purchased in Feb. 2022 from a black-owned sign-making company from Oregon, Holley said in an e-mail. The Pride banners were designed in-house by the library’s graphic department and became available to each branch in July 2022.

“As part of our ongoing efforts to make libraries welcoming to all, the library periodically displays signs or banners that acknowledge and support key concepts, including Black Lives Matter banners and Pride banners,” Holley said in an email. “These are affirmations of inclusivity, not political statements.”

The purchasing of the Black Lives Matters banners coincided with the strengthening of the Library’s stance on inclusiveness. On Feb. 7. 2022 the commission also approved its statement on racism and social equity.

Sonoma County Library Statement on Racism and Social Equity

“Public libraries have long been known as one of the truly democratic institutions. Public libraries champion First Amendment rights and promote free access to information for all. Public libraries offer services and educational resources that promote inclusion and diversity to all in the community. In light of the uncertainty many feel in our current society, we reaffirm: Sonoma County Library values diversity, empowerment, community, unity, kindness, connection, and equity. Sonoma County Library provides service to all races, all genders, all sexual orientations, all religions, all abilities, all ages, all national or ethnic origins, all languages, all citizenship statuses, all economic statuses, all political affiliations, all people. Sonoma County Library is an inclusive community hub where people intersect and thrive. Libraries are for everyone.”

Library branches have since been attacked for what have been seen as positions, as reported by the Press Democrat and Sonoma Index-Tribune. The Sebastopol Regional Library’s Black Lives Matters banner was first stolen, then later burned in Feb. 2022. A month later, the Sonoma Regional Branch was marked with graffiti expressing racial epithets. In June, an organized effort was led to check out all LGBTQIA books from the Rohnert Park branch and not return them.

Since then, some commissioners have grown worrisome about the message the library is sending.

A Black Lives Matters banner hangs outside the Sebastopol Regional Library, surrounded by additional banners and flags supporting the Black Lives Matters movement. Black Lives Matter banners from the Sebastopol Regional Library were stolen and burned in spring of 2022.  Amie Windsor photo.
A Black Lives Matters banner hangs outside the Sebastopol Regional Library, surrounded by additional banners and flags supporting the Black Lives Matters movement. Black Lives Matter banners from the Sebastopol Regional Library were stolen and burned in spring of 2022. Amie Windsor photo.

“I’m just afraid in this environment, nowadays, it’s a slippery slope,” Heavenridge said. “I see red flags ahead. Our diversity statement is a good one and that’s what we are. The library is the last bastion of democracy, but then we can’t pick and choose (what we allow) unless we have barriers.”

Not everyone on the commission agrees.

“It sounds as if the commission is trying to monitor and police the posting and leading into programming of what staff are executing, which is not where the commission needs to be,” said Sarah Laggos, the County of Sonoma/City of Santa Rosa joint appointee. “If it makes people uncomfortable, that’s OK. We can take those complaints and acknowledge them, but not point to say a policy and say we police those things.”

Mackenzie noted she has no issues with programming and that her issue stems around library neutrality. She believes it’s the commission’s charge to determine the library’s stance.

“We are the policy makers and it is appropriate policy,” Mackenzie said of the commission.

Chelsea Kurnick, Chair of the board of Positive Images, disagrees with Mackenzie. Kurnick’s organization and the community it serves -- Sonoma County LGBTQIA+ youth and young adults -- would be directly affected by this decision.

“My understanding of their meetings is that this isn’t under the purview of the commission,” Kurnick said. “It feels to me like they’re challenging the work and ideas of the library staff. These are signs of welcome to two marginalized groups in our community.”

Kurnick commended the library’s diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI, work from the past year and expressed frustration over the commission’s tone-deafness to that work and the community it serves.

“In the case of the progress Pride flag, when it’s at the library, it’s a safety message to the LGBTQIA+ community that the space is making an effort to be welcoming and cognizant of the safety of our community,” Kurnick said. “Flying that flag signals to our community that our library is trying to rectify that it didn’t always do a great job and hasn’t always lived up to the idea that the library is for everyone.”

“They aren’t signs of replacement. They don’t tell white people or heterosexual people they aren’t welcome here.” -- Christina Kurnick, Positive Images

Kurnick noted the presence of the flags make the library a non-neutral place but also said the point of a library isn’t to be neutral.

“The idea that a library should be neutral is antithetical to what a library should be,” Kurnick said. “These signs aren’t political, but are a movement of social justice. They reach out to the black community, which makes up 2% of Sonoma County and to the LGBTQIA+ community, which still isn’t gladly accepted in our county. They aren’t signs of replacement. They don’t tell white people or heterosexual people they aren’t welcome here.”

The commission’s chair, Deborah Doyle, the appointee for the Town of Windsor, noted that library neutrality could be up for debate.

“The notion that library are neutral is up for debate,” Doyle said during the commission’s discussion. “Libraries provide information...information people have access to. They see themselves in books. They are making an emphasis to provide inclusivity.”

The Santa Rosa Chapter of the NAACP wants that emphasis to remain.

“Libraries are one of the most free and democratic aspects of our country. As institutions receiving federal funding, they are also required to uphold Title VI civil rights mandates for protected classes. Censorship of BIPOC and LGBTQ+ content is not only wrong, it stands to place libraries out of compliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” the organization wrote in a Jan. 14 social media statement.

Indeed, the American Library Association states that, “Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion are fundamental values of the association and its members.” The association’s website dives deep and provides guidance for how libraries can respond to social movements that continue to shape the 21st century, including the May 2020 death of George Floyd and the corresponding Black Lives Matter movement; combating xenophobia and protecting transgender and supporting transgender staff and patrons.

In many ways, the Sonoma County Library operates in accordance to the American Library Association’s suggestions.

“The Sonoma County Library is deeply committed to diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging,” Holley wrote in an email. “This is in step with national shifts in awareness of how past library policies have contributed to marginalization of some members of society.”

Chair Doyle and Commissioners Mackenzie and Heavenridge did not respond to the Gazette’s attempts for follow-up comments.

Library commissioners are accepting public comment on the topic. They can be reached via email at the Sonoma County Library website.

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