Why Ellen spoke up against banning a same-sex parents book

Cumberland Council protest

Ellen Hrebeniuk on why she spoke up to protest

I have been to many protests, but last week was the first time I had protested in favour of current law and governance.

Two weeks ago, I discovered that my Council had somehow banned all books on same-sex parenting while approving our Library’s three-year Strategic Plan. A councillor claimed to have received complaints about one particular book, Same-Sex Parents, a non-fiction title for 5-8-year-olds and had decided to remove it.  Even worse, five other councillors had agreed. The councillor declared that he was representing the views of “our conservative and religious population”. 

My heart went out to my local library colleagues, who could not defend themselves against the councillor in public.  Like any slacktivist, I signed the petition, wrote to the Sydney Morning Herald [and got published] and posted angrily on social media.  When another councillor announced a rescission motion would be put at the next Council meeting, I had an Esther moment. As a local ratepayer and librarian, I could defend my professional colleagues and stand against politically-motivated censorship. As a member of a conservative Anglican church, I could, by my presence, challenge the assertion that all religious people in the area wanted a book ban.  It was time to speak. We could hear the demonstrations as we walked into Memorial Avenue, which had been closed off.  There were two distinct crowds, each 100-strong, separated by several metres and a number of police. 

The first sign I saw on the left was the MUA Pride flag.  The first slogan I heard from the right was, “Leave our kids alone!”
I took one of my sons into the Public Gallery with me as my support person.  

Anti-censorship people (generally white and with noticeably more women) filled just over half the gallery. The other side was largely Arab Muslims and Eastern Church Christians, mostly male. 
“Mum, who’s that guy over there? He looks familiar.”“It’s… Craig Kelly!?”
Representatives of the various local religious groups lead prayers, and Providence supplied Rev. Rodney Kerr, an Anglican like me, and his thoughtful prayer for respectful debate.  
It was soon time for the Public Forum – members of the public speak before the Council debate.  Seventeen speeches ranging from passionately unscripted to carefully written, from first-time speakers like me to a former mayor.  Everyone who needed it was granted an extension of time.  I was the 16th speaker, Kelly was the last.

My speech explained how libraries buy books and how censorship works in Australia. I asked Council to temper their language to prevent any abuse of library staff and commented that the family experience of many refugees did not commend censorship.

The book-banner insisted that the offending book was in the “toddler section” of the library.  I had been puzzled by this – certainly, my branch has no toddler section.  Eventually, another Councillor ascertained from the General Manager that no such section existed, causing laughter.  The book was categorised Junior Non-Fiction (where I would have put it) but “had been seen” in the Children’s Collection.  
The council then debated a rescission motion (i.e., to accept the new Library Strategy without banning anything). The pro-censorship side tried two amendments, both to move the offending book to the Adult section of the library.  

 These were lost. In the end, all but two councillors voted in favour of rescission.  

Same-Sex Parenting remains in our local library service, correctly classified.  Video from the street outside shows angry men asserting that they will get library cards and firewood.

Australia does not have strong protections for freedom of speech like the USA, but our library professional association, ALIA, has never run a Banned Books Week either.  The ALA in the US has been running them since the 1980s, and the situation there is worsening.  

I have a friend who volunteers at a school in the US. After school board meetings, the staff and parents have had to form up around the school librarian to walk her out to her car because of violent threats from Moms For Liberty and their bussed-in supporters.  Before M4L, they needed no security.

The censorship we do have is at the border: the Australian Classification Board (a group of Federal public servants) may refuse the classification of materials, usually for violent or criminal content. There is little censorship of ideas, and decisions are public, searchable, and subject to review. If one has come from an authoritarian country, it may not be immediately apparent that reading choice lies with the individual here, and that individuals are free to choose not to read something they do not agree with. This harmonises with Evangelical theology: if we believe conversion is personal, not corporate, we believe in individual freedom of conscience.

Free and equitable access to information is the norm in Australian public libraries.  The Library Council of NSW Guideline on Access to Information in NSW Public Libraries forbids the exclusion or separate placement of materials just because they might offend someone. It also indicates that parents are the only people who should supervise their children’s reading. Thus, when councillors receive complaints about a book, they normally forward them to the General Manager or the Library Manager for resolution.  The Cumberland situation was against convention, though not against the law.

Our opponents expected that the power of the State should be used to prevent their children from hearing about the concept of homosexuality. That is not my view, and I don’t think it should be the view of any Evangelical.   If we believe that everyone should be free to hear the Gospel, how can we believe in limiting access to other ideas? We cannot use State power to limit the flow of one aspect of knowledge without providing the preconditions to limit other kinds, including our own.  We aren’t free unless we’re all free.

Ellen Hrebeniuk is a librarian in an educational institution.

Image: Protestors outside the meeting. Image credit: Pride in protest/ Star Observer

The Council meeting recording https://webcast.cumberland.nsw.gov.au/archive/video24-0515.php Ellen: 01:47:38-1:51:40