- Elected officials in Orem, Utah, forbade library employees from criticizing government restrictions of book displays for Pride Month
- City also limited librarians’ free association rights by cutting off professional development support after librarians criticized the restrictions
- City employees — like all of us — have a right to criticize government decisions
OREM, Utah, June 2, 2023 — We’ve heard of librarians shushing loud-talkers. But in Orem, Utah, it is city officials telling librarians to zip it — or else.
Today, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression warned the City of Orem that it must drop its petty retaliation campaign against librarians who criticized the city’s decision to ban gay pride and heritage month displays in libraries, or face a lawsuit.
“Working for the government doesn’t mean you can’t criticize it,” said FIRE attorney Daniel Ortner. “If Orem’s leaders don’t get that message, we’ll sue to protect librarians’ First Amendment rights to criticize the decisions of their elected officials.”
In June 2022, the Orem City Council banned the public library from maintaining a display for Pride Month in the children’s and teen’s areas. It later expanded the prohibition throughout the library and to displays for women’s history and minority groups. While most federal holidays, including the 4th of July, Columbus Day, and Christmas were exempt from the ban, others — such as Juneteenth — were not.
Local governments may have a say in whether and how public libraries recognize these months, but they may not punish librarians for criticizing those decisions — which is exactly what Orem’s councilmembers did.
After a former employee publicized the gay pride display ban on social media, library leadership conducted an investigation to determine who told the former employee. The city also threatened library staff with discipline or termination if they spoke publicly about the display ban.
“Librarians should be able to do their jobs rather than be forced to tiptoe through the minefield of councilmembers’ preferred political positions,” said former library employee Rita Christensen, who recounted officials’ treatment of library staff to FIRE. “City leaders forced us to trade exploration and learning for government restrictions and intimidation. And if we spoke out about their decisions, we’d be severely disciplined, labeled as untrustworthy, and treated like a pariah.”
The Utah Library Association, a professional association for librarians and other library staff that advocates for libraries and cultivates leadership development, criticized the city’s decision. FIRE is representing the ULA.
“This act of censorship is not only a disservice to the Orem community, but also an act of overreach by the city government,” said the ULA in a statement.
After the ULA’s criticism, the city stripped library staff of a key professional benefit the city provided librarians for years: time and resources to join and participate in ULA programs. (Orem did not cut back on such benefits for other city employees.)
“This restriction not only hampers employees’ professional development, but it undermines the pivotal role of free association in a society that values individuals’ right to link up with others to advocate for a shared belief,” Ortner said.
The city also threatened librarians with termination if they spoke out on social media. The city also maintains an unconstitutionally vague social media policy that forbids employees from making “disparaging comments” about the city, its policies, or leadership.
“The City of Orem’s actions violate the First Amendment rights of both the ULA and Orem employees,” said FIRE attorney Gabe Walters. “The city may not retaliate against employees for exercising their constitutionally protected rights of free speech and free association."
FIRE is giving the city until June 30 to respond, confirming that all library employees are aware that they have a constitutional right to criticize policies enacted by the city without retaliation and that the city has lifted its ban on library employees associating with and engaging in professional development with the ULA.
“City leaders in Orem need to respect their employees’ rights,” said Walters. “Accountability is overdue in Orem, and the late fee will come in the form of a lawsuit.”
The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to defending and sustaining the individual rights of all Americans to free speech and free thought — the most essential qualities of liberty. FIRE educates Americans about the importance of these inalienable rights, promotes a culture of respect for these rights, and provides the means to preserve them.
Daniel Burnett, Senior Director of Communications, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org
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