Did Palin try to ban books from the local library?

Over the past couple of weeks, a number of claims made for and against Sarah Palin have been debunked. One persistent charge made by her critics is that she tried to remove objectionable books from the public library in Wasilla, Alaska, where she was mayor. In a generally critical examination of Palin's record in yesterday's New York Times, the reporters revive the story and provide a few fresh details. As the Times frames the allegations, they fit a narrative in which Palin is a religious extremist imposing her ideology on the town's institutions:

The new mayor also tended carefully to her evangelical base. She appointed a pastor to the town planning board. And she began to eye the library. For years, social conservatives had pressed the library director to remove books they considered immoral.

“People would bring books back censored,” recalled former Mayor John Stein, Ms. Palin’s predecessor. “Pages would get marked up or torn out.”

Witnesses and contemporary news accounts say Ms. Palin asked the librarian about removing books from the shelves. The McCain-Palin presidential campaign says Ms. Palin never advocated censorship.

But in 1995, Ms. Palin, then a city councilwoman, told colleagues that she had noticed the book “Daddy’s Roommate” on the shelves and that it did not belong there, according to Ms. Chase and Mr. Stein. Ms. Chase read the book, which helps children understand homosexuality, and said it was inoffensive; she suggested that Ms. Palin read it.

“Sarah said she didn’t need to read that stuff,” Ms. Chase said. “It was disturbing that someone would be willing to remove a book from the library and she didn’t even read it.”

“I’m still proud of Sarah,” she added, “but she scares the bejeebers out of me.”

There are two different episodes recounted here. One involves an alleged attempt by Palin to remove books when she first became mayor in 1996. The other involves the qualms she is supposed to have expressed about the book Daddy's Roommate when she was a city council member in 1995.

As for her actions as a new mayor in 1996, it's undisputed that Palin did have conversations with the librarian, Mary Ellen Emmons, during which Palin asked about library policy for the removal of objectionable books. The conversations, and the ensuing controversy about them, were reported in the local newspaper, the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman on December 18, 1996. If you're interested in the issue, I advise you to read this contemporaneous account for yourself.

The short of it, as I read the 1996 newspaper article, is that Palin and Emmons disagreed even back then about what was said during these conversations and, more importantly, about how to interpret what was said. For her part, Palin claims that her inquiry about removing books was hypothetical. She was a new mayor and simply wanted to learn more about the library's policies, just as she wanted to learn more about all city departments. But she was not taking steps to ban any books. Consistent with what she said in 1996, Palin recently told ABC's Charlie Gibson: "I never banned a book, never desired to ban a book. When I became mayor in our town, it was the issue of: what if a parent came into our local public library and asked for a book to be taken off the shelf, what's the policy?"

However, Emmons charged in 1996 that Palin's inquiries were more pointed. “She was asking me how I would deal with her [Palin] saying a book can't be in the library,” Emmons told the local paper. Emmons said she responded that she would fight any attempt to remove books. It's a "she said/she said" dispute, and one that may involve genuine misunderstanding about the motives behind Palin's inquiries.

At any rate, several weeks later Palin fired Emmons, which at first looks suspicious. But Emmons was fired along with several other city department heads appointed by the incumbent mayor she had defeated, John Stein. (Emmons was among those city officials who had publicly backed Stein.) There is no evidence Palin fired Emmons for resisting censorship. According to a report in the Anchorage Daily News on February 1, 1997, Palin reinstated Emmons after Emmons reassured her that she would support Palin's plan for a merger of the city's library and museum. The newspaper account of the reinstatement doesn't even mention the earlier book-banning controversy. The fact that Emmons, head of the Alaska Library Association at the time and an outspoken opponent of censorship, continued to work under Palin suggests that Emmons had satisfied herself that Palin would not be pushing to ban books from the library.

The other incident involves concerns Palin allegedly expressed as a city council member in 1995 over the book Daddy's Roommate, which introduces kids to a family headed by a gay male couple. The presence of the book in public libraries, along with Heather Has Two Mommies, has been especially irksome to religious conservatives over the past two decades.

While Palin may indeed have indicated a desire to remove Daddy's Roommate from the public library, there are a couple of problems with the account in the Times. One is timing. Unlike the 1996 dispute between Palin and Emmons, which was on the public record at the time, the 1995 conversation is only now coming to light, thirteen years after the fact. No contemporaneous accounts of the conversation are known to exist, and this incident was apparently not aired in any of Palin's subsequent campaigns for public office. Only now that Palin is a candidate for Vice President have we heard about it. Another weakness is possible bias against Palin. One of the sources is Stein, the incumbent mayor she defeated in 1996. The other source is Palin's 1996 campaign manager, Laura Chase. While Chase is quoted as saying she's "proud" of Palin, she also says Palin "scares" her. This suggests Palin and Chase may no longer be on good terms. I'm not saying Stein and Chase are deliberately lying, but they aren't exactly disinterested witnesses. At the very least a frank conversation in 1995 about Palin's moral objections to homosexuality may have morphed in their minds into a full-blown attempt to start banning "pro-homosexual" books.

Taken together, the 1995 and 1996 incidents can be interpreted either as (1) an aborted attempt by Sarah Palin to ban books from the public library or as (2) the responsible actions of a new mayor anticipating future disputes and desiring to know how the city was prepared to deal with them. If you take Palin to be a religious crusader hellbent on imposing socially conservative policies, you're likely to see these episodes as supporting the former view. If you think of her primarily as a competent and tough administrator pursuing an agenda of reform and accountability in government, you're likely to see them as supporting the latter view.

Unless we get more information, or some further corroboration of the story told by one side or the other, here's my bet about what happened. In 1995, Palin was a young mother and religious conservative concerned about things like abortion and homosexuality, in addition to taxes, spending, and government waste. She was aware of the controversy over Daddy's Roommate and other books and discussed the controversy with others, probably expressing her own discomfort with children accessing the book. But she made no effort to "ban" any books. As a new mayor, Palin anticipated some parents' protest over the presence of some books and genuinely wanted to know how such protests would be dealt with. She probably would not have fallen on her First Amendment sword to save Daddy's Roommate or other books in the event protests began but she wasn't herself eager to start a controversy over it. When she got resistance from Emmons, and public criticism when she fired the popular librarian for other reasons, she backed off on any fleeting thought she might have given to removing any books from the library shelves.

If I'm roughly right about this, there are a couple of things we learn here about Palin. First, her instincts and personal views on social issues do indeed lie with religious conservatives. If it were costless to implement a socially conservative vision of the world, she would do it.

But the second the thing we learn about her is more important: she is not a crusader for a religious agenda in her capacity as a public official. She's a pragmatic reformer and a quick study who learned as a new mayor that there are some things worth fighting about and others that aren't. She has learned to prioritize. Cutting waste and consolidating departments in city and state government are worth ruffling feathers and making enemies (as she has); removing a book from the library is not. There is no evidence that Palin made any further effort as mayor to ban books, or even expressed further qualms about any books. If she was a book-banner back in 1996, she wasn't a proud one since she denied it at the time, and has long since given up such ideas.

This emphasis on small-government conservatism over social conservatism fits her record as governor, where she has mostly ignored the "family values" agenda. She opposes abortion, even in cases of rape, but hasn't pushed new anti-abortion legislation. She believes in creationism, but hasn't forced it on the state's public schools. And she may personally believe that many aspects of modern culture are corrosive and immoral, but there isn't even a hint of book-banning in her post-1996 public record.

To many people, it wouldn't matter one bit if Palin still wanted to ban from public libraries books like Daddy's Roommate and others disliked by religious conservatives. It would even be a plus for some. But it would bother me quite a bit, even apart from whatever constitutional issues such actions raise, because it would suggest an unsettling degree of anti-gay obsession and, more generally, a willingness to use government to suppress opposing views. We may learn something more in the coming weeks that gives more ground to doubt her commitment to liberal values in government, but we aren't there right now. There remain fundamental reasons to be concerned about her candidacy, and some of them are contained elsewhere in yesterday's Times article, but my provisional view is that book-banning isn't one of them.