We’ve got a disturbing trend on our hands: Small-town officials coming under heavy pressure from small groups of loud people. Or even one single person.
I’ve written at length about stealth conservatives running for local office, rabble-rousing over critical race theory and Black Lives Matter, and arguing over school mascots. But three more incidents have recently come to the fore: the Chester library board suspending Drag Queen Story Hour, the Canaan school board facing demands to remove books from the school library, and the Randolph school board voting to take down a “Black Lives Matter” flag.
This isn’t going away anytime soon. The American Library Association says it’s getting more reports of attempted book banning than ever before. The head of the ALA, Deborah Caldwell-Stone, says “It’s a volume of challenges I’ve never seen” in her 20 years in the organization.
“When you have organizations like Heritage Foundation and Family Policy Alliance publishing materials that instruct parents on how to challenge books in the school library or the public library, right down to a challenge form enclosed in the booklet so they can just fill it out, you’re seeing a challenge to our democratic values of free speech, freedom of thought, freedom of belief.”
It’s never been easy to be a local official. It’s a lot of work. You’re always on call. When things go wrong, you get the blame. But these organized movements present a new level of difficulty. Local boards of all kinds are facing loud, insistent demands from tiny cohorts of The Aggrieved.
Our local public servants don’t need any more headaches. But they’ve got ’em, and they’ll have to respond.
The trustees of Chester’s Whiting Library decided to “pause” Drag Queen Story Hour* with little explanation. One trustee said that an “inappropriate” image had been found on the performers’ website. Which begs the question, why was anybody doing research on the drag queens in the first place? Methinks someone was looking for a pretext. That same trustee, Robert Nied, insisted that the board “supports… programming for the LGBT community,” which is an odd thing to say because Drag Queen Story Hour is decidedly not “programming for the LGBT community.” It’s for kids. I sense an unfriendly mindset behind Nied’s anodyne statement.
*Note: Linked article is from VTDigger; story first reported by the small-but-mighty Chester Telegraph. In whose pages you can find multiple follow-ups, including the resignations of Nied and five other Library trustees and a very successful Drag Queen Story Hour at the Wilder Memorial Library in Weston.
Library director Deirdre Doran turned in her resignation, reportedly in response to that decision. Many residents have voiced their opposition to the move, and local restaurant The Pizza Stone eagerly volunteered to host the event. Let’s hope the board reverses course. Otherwise I’d hate to think how they’d respond if they got a real controversy on their hands.
In Canaan, formerly known as the only Vermont school district that never imposed a mask mandate, the board has fielded a steady stream of complaints about three books with LGBTQ+ themes. VTDigger’s headline says the books are at “the center of controversy,” which kinda makes it sound like the books are at fault. In truth, it’s a small number of folks — or maybe even one single woman. Ashlie Lynch is the only person quoted as opposing the books.
In her fevered imagination, the presence of “Heather Has Two Mommies” on the library shelf equals the district teaching and promoting homosexuality. Well, my local library offers a copy of “Mein Kampf,” which means the library promotes Nazism? There’s also room on the shelf for the Qur’an, so we’ve got a pro-jihad library on our hands. Or so the logic of Ms. Lynch would conclude.
So far, the Canaan board has rejected Lynch’s pleadings. But I doubt she’s going anywhere anytime soon.
Finally, the superintendent of the Orange Southwest School District ordered a “Black Lives Matter” flag taken down at Randolph High School. Layne Millington cited a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the city of Boston had violated the Constitution by refusing to fly a Christian flag. His reasoning seems far from foolproof; what applies to a city does not necessarily apply to a school. But the school board went along, approving a policy to restrict flag-flying to the American and Vermont flags.
Millington’s decision, supposedly based on that court ruling, was also a convenient pretext for ending “a long-running controversy” in the district. A controversy fueled by none other than Vermont’s number-one conservative crank, John Klar, and Northfield Police Chief John Helfant*, who first raised the Boston precedent.
*Topic for another day: The law enforcement apparatus is supposed to be a neutral keeper of the peace. But it’s vbecoming heavily politicized in a very conservative direction. The whole thing probably needs a thorough scrubbing, but I think we can safely put that in the category of “Ain’t Never Gonna Happen.”
There’s plenty of reason to see the Court argument as a nothingburger. As Jay Diaz of the Vermont ACLU pointed out, the courts tend to give schools more leeway in such matters than municipalities. Also, he says, the city of Boston was cited for not having a flag-flying policy at all. If Orange Southwest were to adopt a policy or a process for deciding which flags to fly, as many Vermont districts have done, then they should be in the clear.
But they’d still have loudmouths like Klar and Helfant clogging up their meetings and causing trouble. The Orange Southwest school board either agrees with them, or doesn’t want to fight that fight.
That board, like the Chester library board, doesn’t have the guts to stand up for free speech and an open marketplace of ideas. That’s a harsh assessment, because these people never signed up for a First Amendment fight. But thanks to small bands of organized and motivated extremists, more and more local officials are going to face those fights. They’d better be prepared. Or they’d better step aside and let others take up the battle.