SHHHHHH! Oklahoma Librarians Barred From Even Saying The Word 'Abortion'

SHHHHHH! Oklahoma Librarians Barred From Even Saying The Word 'Abortion'

Over the last several years, conservatives have come to see themselves as great defenders of the First Amendment right to free speech, which they have taken to include not just government censorship but personal censorship, by other people who don't want to listen to them or who criticize what they have to say in any way whatsoever. It was certainly an unusual position for them to claim, particularly as they cheered for Donald Trump's plans to "loosen up the libel laws" (which would have required overturning New York Times v. Sullivan, probably the most important free speech SCOTUS decision in the last century) — but boy did they ever double down.

Oh, how their at-will-employment-loving hearts broke every time someone was fired for being a bigot out loud, where people could hear them. Oh, how they've cried about "thoughtcrimes" and "doublespeak" and other terms they vaguely remember from the time they read 1984 in Freshman English, usually in the context of being expected to not be shitty to trans people.

And now, thanks to those same free-speech-loving conservatives, Oklahoma librarians are not allowed to say the word "abortion."

This week, a memo went out to librarians across Oklahoma County's Metropolitan Library System telling them that not only are they not allowed to assist anyone in looking up information on abortion, but they are not even allowed to say the word — noting that if they violate this and are found to have assisted anyone in any way with getting an abortion that they will be fined $10,000 and possibly thrown in prison. The memo also warned that there will likely be people coming into the library and trying to trick them into giving information on how to obtain an abortion for the purposes of collecting the $10,000 bounty.

After the overturning of Roe vs. Wade, Legal reviewed MLS's role regarding giving information on abortions and concluded that due to state law libraries have no role. Library staff should avoid the use of the word "abortion" and are not to assist in looking up information on either library PCs or even their own devices to aid in such a search. If a staff member gives any information on how to obtain an abortion, then that person may be found personally liable and will also make MLS liable. Civil penalties include a $10,000.00 fine, plus jail time, and the staff member will lose their job due to being informed by MLS and disregarding the warning. There may be people that go into public libraries and try staff on this just to see if they will give information on how to obtain an abortion just to report them (along the lines of 1st Amendment Auditors), so staff should be aware of this potentiality as well.

First of all, yes, we must digress: What the hell is a "1st Amendment Auditor"? Well, it's a person who walks around videotaping in a library, trying to trick librarians into asking them to stop doing that. Meanwhile, an actual literal walking violation of the First Amendment is requiring that this memo be sent.

Second: It would technically be more legal for an Oklahoma librarian to assist someone saying they are a fiction writer with research on how to murder someone than it would be for them to help someone else find information on where they can get an abortion out of state.

VICE reports that after that memo was sent and librarians across the state balked, the MLS sent some updated guidance that was somewhat less horrifying than the previous guidance. This one, however, also suggested that staff "not offer opinions surrounding the law," which is not so great either.

The updated guidance states that library workers should "provide factual information" about what abortion is and the state and federal laws surrounding it, but "should not offer opinions surrounding the law" or "actively assist anyone in breaking the laws of Oklahoma." The memo further states that MLS is "tightening our existing technology security and record keeping" to provide better anonymity for those seeking abortion information.

"This guidance is being provided because of our responsibility to protect MLS from the risk of civil liability, which we do for all legal matters," [Executive Director Larry] White wrote in the letter, which was obtained by Motherboard. "This guidance is being balanced by our responsibilities to provide information services to our community, to comply with the existing laws of this state, support of the 1st Amendment, our Freedom to Read statements, and our professional ethics in this process."

Between this and the model legislation being pushed by the National Right to Life — which would make it illegal to have a conversation over the phone or the internet about how someone in a forced birth state could obtain an abortion out-of-state or self-manage one at home, and also make it illegal to host websites that provide this sort of information, as well as for abortion pills to be advertised on the internet in forced birth states — they are really doubling down on the whole "no right to privacy" or free speech.

it seems unlikely that this will end with abortion. Hell, this same sort of law could easily be used to violate the free speech rights of conservatives in some capacity that they may not like — and then they'd really have some cancel culture to worry about.


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Robyn Pennacchia

Robyn Pennacchia is a brilliant, fabulously talented and visually stunning angel of a human being, who shrugged off what she is pretty sure would have been a Tony Award-winning career in musical theater in order to write about stuff on the internet. Follow her on Twitter at @RobynElyse


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