The Anoka County Library is facing criticism after an internal memo, telling employees that displays and messaging about Pride Month and Black Lives Matter won't be allowed, went public.
The memo from the library's management team was sent via e-mail to staffers May 26, but the backlash bubbled up in mid-June after it was posted and shared on social media by a library employee. Some are accusing the library system of censorship.
"County guidance is that we will not have public messaging around Pride and Black Lives Matter month," the memo said. "If you would like to do a display celebrating diversity in our community in honor of one or both of these themes, you may do so through a lens celebrating diversity on a broader spectrum."
The memo was issued after staffers requested guidance on what would be appropriate, in accordance with a longstanding general county practice to maintain "a neutral, welcoming message to all staff and patrons," according to a statement to the Star Tribune from officials with Anoka County, which oversees the library system.
"This specific guidance and expectation for library staff was to ensure library-related materials, county messaging and displays have multiple points of view under a broad umbrella without endorsing any," the statement said.
The county added that the guidance has been difficult to communicate with clarity, even more so due to misinformation spread on social media.
Anoka County Library branches were allowed to have displays and messaging about Juneteenth, the new federal holiday that commemorates the end of slavery. But the May 26 memo vetoed displays on Pride Month, which each June recognizes people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, and Black Lives Matter, which marks its advocacy for equality and justice in June. Appropriate messaging for June, the memo said, included Great Outdoors Month, National Camping Month and Audiobook Appreciation Month.
According to the county's statement, the library will continue to encourage displays marking occasions such as Women's History Month in March, Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage in May and Indigenous Month in June. Libraries also may celebrate at anytime authors and writings that reflect the lives of the LGBTQ community, the statement said.
Josiah Jesse James Cox, a library services assistant who said he was speaking out solely as an Anoka County resident, kicked off the controversy by posting the library memo on social media. He said the policy amounts to censorship and disenfranchisement of marginalized and underrepresented people.
"It is a disconcerting and heartbreaking message the county is sending," said Cox, who is bisexual. "It no longer feels like a true free public library. It's exclusive rather than inclusive."
Cox said the library's role is to connect people with knowledge. Stifling messages about Pride Month and Black Lives Matter, he said, runs counter to the library's mission and goes against both the Anoka County Library's bylaws and the spirit of the American Library Association's Bill of Rights, which the Anoka County system adopted in 2014.
"Materials should not be removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval," one of the articles reads.
"Censorship is not just about items being removed," Cox said. "But it includes words, images and ideas."
In their statement to the Star Tribune, county officials disagreed. They said the library is a content-neutral space and that information, materials and resources about race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation and political beliefs remain available.
"To promote one political or social cause over another would undermine that goal of content neutrality," the county's statement said. "Their mischaracterization of the Anoka County Library communication discredits the real victims of censorship, like imprisoned authors and truly oppressed people."
The Hennepin County Library does not have similar policies, according to spokesman Joshua Yetman, who said it "has a proud history of creating programming, curating book lists, and working with community partners to celebrate all cultures and identities."
Ramsey County Library branch managers may produce displays on current events such as Pride Month, timely topics and holidays. Systemwide displays for all locations must be approved by the library director, county spokesman John Siqveland said.
The Anoka County system is based in Blaine and has branches in Anoka, Blaine, Circle Pines, Coon Rapids, Fridley, Ham Lake and St. Francis.
Anoka County Commissioner Mandy Meisner said the County Board hasn't discussed which words, history or events the library may use, and that "it would be a mistake not to talk about it."
That's what Cox said he hopes will grow out of the controversy.
"If we can have conversation, we can have a better community, a better library and a better Anoka County," he said.