Evanston Public Library reinstates canceled book talk after accusations of censorship

Alice Yin, Reporter

The Evanston Public Library has reinstated a Palestinian-American author’s book talk just days after a controversial decision to cancel it.

Author and activist Ali Abunimah will speak at the library on August 11 as originally scheduled, according to an updated statement from EPL on Monday. Abunimah plans to read an excerpt from his book, “The Battle for Justice in Palestine.” The author’s work covers the Gaza strip, the site of increasingly violent conflict.

Lesley Williams, EPL’s head of adult services, sent Abunimah an email Friday saying that because the library had “not yet confirmed a pro Israel speaker,” the library’s director wanted to cancel the event, according to a copy of the email posted on Abunimah’s blog. On Saturday, the library announced via Twitter that Abunimah’s talk would be rescheduled. Abunimah and others responded immediately, accusing EPL of censorship.

“Who decides what the balancing opinion is? … It’s totally outrageous,” Abunimah told The Daily on Sunday. “The library director is substituting her own personal political viewpoints to ensure the library is an ‘open space.’”

EPL director Karen Danczak Lyons said Williams’ email expressing a need for the library to schedule a pro-Israel speaker was not what the library had requested.

“That email is not accurate,” Lyons told The Daily. “I never specified we wanted Jewish speakers … [We wanted] discussions with a variety of credible speakers that could present different perspectives.”

After the cancellation, critics alleged that the library violated the Library Bill of Rights code on supporting free speech. Abunimah said many librarians expressed their frustration with the library’s decision via social media and email.

“We uphold the standards of free speech, open access and all of the tenets of the American Library Bill of Rights,” Lyons wrote in a news release. “The statement that the Evanston Public Library banned or censored the work of author Ali Abunimah is false.”

Abunimah published an update Monday evening on his website stating he has “no doubt” that this reversal “owes much” to his supporters who have expressed their desire to attend.

“There’s no question we mishandled the rescheduling of this event,” Lyons said. “But this is not about censorship.”

Abunimah agreed to continue the event however he expressed disappointment with how the library handled the issue.

He said he has never received this treatment before and does not understand the library’s need to balance the event. During his past events, he said people would normally voice issues and opposing viewpoints to extend the dialogue.

He said EPL had an unfair standard in using “a requirement for ‘balance’” “as a tactic to silence Palestinian experiences and voices.”

“There is a false sense of ‘this issue is too complex,’” Abunimah said. “When an issue is complex, the thing they should do is … talk about it and not to ban it.”

Email: [email protected]northwestern.edu
Twitter: @alice__yin