City officials in Orem, Utah, have banned its public library from setting up displays highlighting Pride Month, Black History Month, and Hispanic Heritage Month, along with other heritage-themed holidays. And then they banned librarians from criticizing the city's decision—threatening to discipline them for "insubordination."
But now, the Utah Library Association (ULA) has threatened to sue, teaming up with the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), a First Amendment nonprofit, to warn the city that it could soon face a lawsuit for violating librarians' First Amendment rights.
In June 2022, Orem city officials banned the Orem Public Library from setting up any Pride Month–themed displays in the library's children or teen sections, prompting backlash from the ULA, which called on the city to reverse the ban. Instead, the city enacted further bans, prohibiting the library from making any heritage month–themed displays—including Black History Month, Hispanic Heritage Month, and Native American History Month–themed book displays. Notably, this ban did not apply to other holiday-themed displays, such as Christmas or the Fourth of July.
Again, the ULA criticized the decision, posting a statement on social media and its website arguing that "This act of censorship is not only a disservice to the Orem community, but also an act of overreach by the city government….The library is both a legal and a symbolic embodiment of the fundamental American value that we all have the right to self-direct, think for ourselves, read, learn, and engage with ideas and information without government interference."
In response, the city has retaliated, cutting off library employees from ULA-affiliated professional development programs. Making matters worse, the city outright threatened library employees with discipline if they criticized city officials' censorship of heritage month–themed displays. According to FIRE, when news of the ban went public, city officials even "conducted a lengthy inquisition among the library staff interrogating them to try to figure out who spoke to a former employee about the policy." Eventually, they "reprimanded one employee and forced them to forgo a raise."
The Orem Public Library also subjects employees to a restrictive social media policy that bars employees from "mak[ing] disparaging comments about the workplace, City policies, supervisors, co-workers, citizens, customers, or other persons associated with the City," as well as prohibits "post[ing] any information to any blog, social networking site, or other public internet site, that would discredit or disparage the City." In an email to library employees, one former library director pointed out this policy, as well as informing employees "that membership in the Utah Valley Parent's Alliance, which opposed the display ban, would also be considered insubordination," according to FIRE.
But FIRE contends that these actions clearly violate the First Amendment. "The City of Orem's actions violate the First Amendment rights of both the ULA and Orem employees," FIRE attorney Gabe Walters said in a press release last Friday. "The city may not retaliate against employees for exercising their constitutionally protected rights of free speech and free association."
FIRE sent a letter to Orem city officials last Friday, informing them that their actions violate the Constitution and threatening to sue if the city doesn't change course. FIRE's letter singles out both the city's explicitly retaliatory conduct in cutting off support for employee association with the ULA and its social media policy. According to FIRE, the social media policy stifles employees' First Amendment rights by placing a prior restraint on librarians' speech. The policy is also overly broad and unconstitutionally vague.
"For instance, an employee risks discipline if she posts on Facebook complaining about excess traffic or criticizing something the Mayor said to the City Council, speech with little to no bearing on the operation of the Orem Public," the letter notes, adding that the policy's vagueness leaves it unclear if employees violate the policy merely by disagreeing with the ban or by posting in agreement with the ULA's criticism of the ban. "This vagueness opens the door for 'arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement' where employees are punished only for speech that City leadership dislikes or finds challenging."
FIRE has given city officials until June 30 to change their policies—or face a lawsuit.
"Librarians should be able to do their jobs rather than be forced to tiptoe through the minefield of councilmembers' preferred political positions," said Rita Christensen, a former Orem Public Library employee. "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."