Guest post by Peter Bromberg, Executive Director of the Salt Lake City Public Library
On October 19, the board of the Utah Education Network (UEN) voted unanimously to immediately reinstate access to EBSCO K12 databases for over 650,000 students in Utah. As earlier reported by James LaRue, director of the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom, in his October 12 blog post “Education is not Pornography,” the UEN Board had previously suspended access to EBSCO content for Utah schools. The board took initial action on September 21 to remove access to the database based on a single unsubstantiated claim from a self-described concerned parent that pornography was available in the database. The offending material was later reported by KUTV to be:
- a picture of a two women kissing
- a picture of a woman showing her buttocks to the camera. She is clothed but wearing only underwear
- a picture which shows two men kissing and touching a topless woman on a bed (the woman’s breasts are exposed but covered by pasties.)
It is important to note that the initial decision by the UEN Board to pull the plug on access to EBSCO K12, a vital database that supports information literacy, research, and digital citizenship curricula for students across the state, was taken with no official action by the board, and in the absence of any specific policy or process for responding to constituent complaints. The decision was made after a local news source reported the complaint under the headline, “Utah mom finds pornographic pics on Utah Education Network database.” The article lead with the line, “A Utah mom says she found some pretty ‘raunchy’ pictures on a website that is supposed to protect kids from questionable material.” It is not clear precisely who at UEN, and on what authority, made the decision to take EBSCO K12 offline.
The UEN Board hastily organized an emergency board meeting which was held on the afternoon of October 1. There were approximately 15 members of the public present to offer public comment, and nearly all commenters offered stories of children finding porn in school library databases. No one defined pornography, or offered detail about which databases had yielded such troubling results. In the context of that highly emotional climate, the board voted 6-1, with one abstention to keep the ban on EBSCO in place, and to potentially expand the ban to other databases if problematic content was discovered. The motion that passed stated that the ban would continue “for the immediate future pending additional discussion and investigation of EBSCO and all other similar periodical services provided by UEN to public education students” Colleen Eggett, State Librarian, was the sole vote to reinstate access to EBSCO.
The “Utah mom” who initially complained is, in fact, an active conservative writer and speaker who had already been working with parents, with the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE – Formerly Morality in Media), and with Family Watch International in Colorado to ban EBSCO from schools. On October 10, the blogger, writing about “the international database scandal” for Meridian Magazine said, “schools and libraries have been categorized by the United States as ‘safe places’ for children. Sadly, the majority of these ‘safe places’ are exploiting children by spoon feeding them pornographic images, videos, and illicit sexual articles through databases.” She also implored her readers in a call to action to not only look at school library databases, but also investigate public libraries, and colleges because it is “a lie that the databases are safe.” The language in this article makes it clear: There is a larger agenda beyond school libraries that includes going after public libraries and colleges.
Furthermore, a representative from Family Watch International, which is designated as an anti-LGBTQ extremist group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, told KUTV News that they are “organizing with dozens of conservative organizations to shame Utah into ending their contract with EBSCO” and went on to say, “We’re hitting it nationwide within the next week. In fact, I just talked to our lobbying firm today and they are trying to have a congressional hearing on it within a couple of weeks.” This representative also attended the last two UEN Board meetings and suggested that if the board reinstated access that they would be “intentionally and knowingly” distributing pornography to minors.
Restoring EBSCO: The Power of Coalition and Rapid Response
I learned of the blocking of EBSCO through an email sent out by State Librarian Colleen Eggett on September 21. As Advocacy chair of the Utah Library Association (ULA) I quickly reached out to ULA President Rebekah Cummings and immediately went into action with a goal of convincing the 13-member UEN Board to reverse their decision at the October 19 meeting.
The strategy included the following tactics:
- Offered public comment at State Board of Education meeting on October 4 to influence the Board of Ed’s position. (The BOE controls one vote on the UEN Board.)
- Reframed the narrative in the media. This included reaching out to education reporters at KUTV (who broke the story), as well as at our two local papers, and a local political radio show, KRCL’s Radioactive – which listed our call to action on their show’s website. I lined up news coverage prior to my attendance at meeting and my comments in front of the BOE Board were picked up by a number outlets, helping to reframe the debate from “kids accessing porn” to “the sweeping and negative impact [of censorship] on students and teachers across this state.”
- Developed, refined, and shared messaging through a shared Google Document — and then amplified the message through multiple channels by collaborating with coalition partners including the Utah Education Association (UEA), Utah Educational Library Media Association (UELMA), Board members of the State Board of Education, Alliance for a Better Utah, the local chapter of the ACLU, ALA Office of Intellectual Freedom (OIF), and EveryLibrary.
Strategically, our goal was to generate emails from Utah residents directly to UEN Board members urging them to vote to reinstate access to EBSCO. While it would not have been difficult to generate thousands of emails from librarians across country by leveraging ALA’s Engage platform or posting a call to action in the Library Think Tank Group in Facebook, which has over 36,000 members, we believed that bringing outside pressure would be counter-productive. To generate a Utah-focused email campaign, ULA worked with EveryLibrary to host a petition on the NationBuilder action platform.* EveryLibrary offered pro bono assistance in running a paid Facebook ad targeted at Utah residents whose Facebook profiles indicated support of libraries and education. The petition made it easy for supporters to quickly and easily have their voices heard by the decision-makers. ULA also promoted the petition directly to our membership, and worked with coalition partners — The Utah Educational Library Media Association (UELMA) and The Utah Education Association (UEA) — to promote the petition to their membership and people in their personal networks that they felt would be inclined to support our position.
Within two weeks, the petition had garnered over 530 signatures, generating almost 7,000 total emails to the UEN Board. One board member commented that the emails they received ran 20:1 in favor of reinstating access to EBSCO. In parallel, ALA also hosted a petition and did an action alert to all ALA members in Utah, garnering an additional 40 signatures (520 emails) in the last two days before the board vote. Without doubt, this clear and voluminous expression of support from Utah residents for reinstating EBSCO was a significant factor in the board’s decision. While sharing the link to the petition, coalition partners also directed supporters to UEN’s comment page to leave comments that would be included in the official board packet. This type of “rapid response” — the ability to quickly build a coalition, engage supporters, and activate them to take action — was key to ULA’s success in this fight.
Another simple but effective tool in our tool box was Google Docs, which allowed all coalition partners to share and refine messaging and FAQs. I created and updated the document continually over a period of three weeks leading up the final UEN Board vote. Librarians, teachers, and other supporters left many comments on the document, which led to a continually improved crowd-sourced set of talking points. Examples of key points that we continually stressed in our communications to members, supporters, and media include:
- One person’s (or group’s) standards shouldn’t dictate the outcome: Letting one person’s complaint (of an unreplicated search result) — or even the complaints of a few people — dictate the immediate loss of access to the most vital research tool for every students and teacher in the state of Utah is a disproportionate response. It’s an overreach and a decision that is not in accordance with UEN’s duty, mission, and policy to provide access to these extremely safe research tools.
- The blocking of EBSCO was sweeping overreach that had serious negative consequences. The decision by UEN Board to remove access to the EBSCO research databases for over 650,000 students was done without regard for the facts and is creating a serious impediment for students and teachers across the state. The UEN Board itself acknowledged (during their October 1 board meeting) that they were unable to replicate the results reported by the individual who complained.
- EBSCO databases are very safe. The EBSCO K12 database is a curated, filtered, walled garden that is extremely safe, and provides vital access to research information for our students. It also provides extremely granular administrative control that can be used to create customized access to specific periodicals. These more targeted solutions have not been considered.
- UEN should support their own stated policies. UEN’s acceptable use policy states, “UEN encourages the pursuit of higher knowledge and recognizes that such pursuit may result in Network users accessing potentially controversial material that may not be considered of educational value in the context of a school setting.”
- Decision to block EBSCO made without basis in a policy or process: Libraries receive challenges all the time — and when we do, we don’t immediately lock the door and search every shelf for anything that someone might be offended by. We have a lawful policy, and we thoughtfully review the policy, the concern of the patron, and then we make a transparent decision based on clear criteria.
- In reality, students almost NEVER bring up inappropriate materials in EBSCO. At the October 1 UEN Board meeting, one teacher reported that in 17 years there was only one incident of a student bringing up inappropriate content through a database search. Students are taught to immediately turn off the monitor and alert a teacher, who can then review the keystroke log and adjust the filter accordingly to prevent a future occurrence.
- The word “pornography” and “harmful to minors” have actual legal definitions, and UEN must look to those definition, not to anyone’s personal definition. Key to the definition is the concept of “taken as a whole,” and the database “taken as a whole” clearly does not meet the legal standard of “harmful to minors” as set out in Utah State Law [Utah Code section 76–10–1201(5)(a)] as well as in federal law (Children’s Internet Protection Act). According to the law, “harmful to minors” means that quality of any description or representation, in whatsoever form, of nudity, sexual conduct, sexual excitement, or sadomasochistic abuse when it:
- taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest in sex of minors;
- is patently offensive to prevailing standards in the adult community as a whole with respect to what is suitable material for minors; and
- taken as a whole, does not have serious value for minors. Serious value includes only serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value for minors.
My three key takeaways from the experience are:
Rapid response is key: We need to be increasingly well-prepared to quickly activate supporters who will speak up in support of our position. To this end, library associations need to grow our own robust databases of local supporters, who we can reach out to when we need a rapid response to a timely issue.
Coalition work is key: The why and how of building coalitions is a blog post (or a book) on its own. Suffice to say, we do not have the luxury of going it alone. Many voices are exponentially more powerful than one voice, and having many communication channels to potential supporters is invaluable in amplifying the message and leveraging the network effect.
This is isn’t over: Given the recent lawsuit filed against EBSCO and the Colorado Library Consortium, and statements from individuals and organizations that are inclined to see databases as portals to porn, and teachers and librarians as willful enablers, we can expect these conflicts to continue. We need to understand the beliefs, talking points, and methods of those who would ban access to information, and be prepared to speak clearly and forcefully about our principles and the value that librarians bring in helping our students learn good digital citizenship skills, and the information literacy skills that will help them safely navigate the digital landscape.
- ULA Statement to UEN Board
- ALA Joint Statement with AASL; ACRL; UELMA; National Coalition Against Censorship; Intellectual Freedom Center, National Council of Teachers of English
- UELMA Statement to UEN Board
- Peter Bromberg’s Statement to UEN Board
- Text of Petition
- Public Comments Received by UEN Board through UEN Comments Form
*Editor’s correction: ALA’s Engage platform is capable of generating communication with members and advocates of a specific state.
Peter Bromberg is the Executive Director of the Salt Lake City Public Library, the Advocacy Chair of the Utah Library Association (ULA), and a Board Member of EveryLibrary. He can be found online at peterbromberg.com.