By Erica C. Barnett
On May 27, the Seattle Public Library will rent a 200-person meeting room to Kirk Cameron, the ‘80s TV star-turned-evangelical Christian activist, who’s promoting his conservative Christian children’s book as part of his publisher Brave Books’ “Freedom Island Tour.”According to Brave Books’ website, the tour—which only includes a handful of stops, including on in San Francisco—provides “a wholesome alternative to the Drag Queen Story Hours promoted by woke Marxist librarians.”
The Seattle Public Library stopped holding Drag Queen Story Time several years ago.
PubliCola broke the news about Cameron’s appearance on Twitter last Friday. On Saturday, the library issued a statement about its decision and invited the public to submit comments and questions about the event.
Contacted about Cameron’s appearance on Friday, a spokeswoman for the library said SPL isn’t “hosting” Cameron or endorsing his views, but providing his group access to a meeting room that’s available for anyone to rent. “We do not choose who gets to use our meeting rooms or what they are allowed to say or believe. That would be government censorship and a violation of the First Amendment. The Library is committed to intellectual freedom,” the spokeswoman, Laura Gentry, said.
“This was a fairly standard procedure meeting room booking request, however the event itself is likely to be more high-profile than most other room bookings and is likely to require additional Library resources due to the anticipated public interest,” a library spokeswoman said. Those resources could include extra security to insulate Cameron from protesters.
This mirrors the American Library Association’s policy on meeting room rentals, which says that banning hate speech in library meeting rooms would be tantamount to banning Drag Queen Story Time (something many libraries across the country have, in fact, been forced to do because of protests by right-wing groups). “If libraries kowtowed to the exclusive tastes of patrons, our cherished institutions would cease to exist,” according to an ALA opinion piece.
Cameron has said homosexuality is “unnatural,” opposes women having jobs outside the home, has called women who get abortions “murderers,” and said he believed that two recent deadly hurricanes were God’s punishment for people’s sins.
He has also said that public schools are “sexualizing” and “grooming” kids, a common trope among right-wing fringe groups.
“This was a fairly standard procedure meeting room booking request, however the event itself is likely to be more high-profile than most other room bookings and is likely to require additional Library resources due to the anticipated public interest,” Gentry said. Those resources could include extra security to insulate Cameron from protesters who may want to disrupt the event.
For public institutions, hosting controversial groups can be costly and sometimes dangerous. In one of the most famous examples, the public library in Wakefield, Massachusetts rented a meeting room to a neo-Nazi group in 2002. In an effort to prevent violence, the town shut down a highway, had staffers work at the library after hours, and paid hundreds of police officers to quell violence that erupted between neo-Nazis and anti-racist protesters.
Closer to home, the University of Washington provided access to Kane Hall, its largest auditorium, to far-right troll Milo Yiannopolous in 2017. Police in riot gear, hired to keep protesters away from the event, did not prevent two people from shooting a protester as Yiannopolous railed against ” hairy dykes,” “trannies,” and “Sasquatch lesbians” inside.
SPL’s policy on meeting rooms was tested most recently in 2020, when the library rented its main auditorium to a group of anti-trans activists engaged in legal efforts to bar trans women from gender-segregated spaces such as women’s restrooms. The library’s decision to provide space to the group sparked protests and a backlash against the library, including from trans and non-gender-conforming library staffers, who said the event was a threat to their safety and ability to do their jobs.
The event—held after hours with extra security, all funded by the public—sparked protests and caused long-term damage to the library’s reputation as a place that’s welcome to LGBTQ+ people, particularly trans and gender-nonconforming patrons and staff.