Oklahoma Threatens Librarians: ‘Don’t Use the Word Abortion’

After a total abortion ban in the state, library workers in Oklahoma were warned to not help patrons find abortion-related information, period.

Library workers across Oklahoma’s Metropolitan Library System (MLS) were shocked this week after receiving instructions to avoid using the word “abortion” and not to help patrons locate abortion-related information on either library computers or their own devices. Workers were warned that they could be held legally liable and face penalties under the state's abortion laws.

“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,” says a memo, which was obtained by Motherboard after being emailed to workers at one library branch in the Oklahoma City area. “Civil penalties include a $10,000 fine plus jail time and the staff member will lose their job due to being informed by MLS and disregarding the warning.” 

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The message also asks library workers to be wary of people who try to trick staff into giving them information on how to obtain an abortion so they can report them to authorities. Branch managers have given similar guidance to library workers across the system, according to workers who spoke with Motherboard on condition of anonymity.

On Tuesday, one MLS library worker took a screenshot of the message and posted it to the subreddit r/Libraries. Motherboard has since confirmed the post's authenticity through interviews with library workers and internal documents from the library system.

“This is very dystopian,” a MLS library worker, who asked to remain anonymous because they feared retaliation, told Motherboard. “This is dystopian to not be able to ask questions. I mean, you can ask; we just can’t tell you.” 

An email sent to library workers at Oklahoma's Metropolitan Library System

Abortions have been mostly unavailable in Oklahoma since May when Gov. Kevin Stitt signed a bill into law banning abortion past the sixth week of pregnancy, which can also be enforced by private civil action. Oklahoma now has a total abortion ban, because of a “trigger law” that took effect shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June. 

With 19 branch locations and more than 400 employees, MLS is the largest library system in Oklahoma. Internal documents obtained by Motherboard—including meeting minutes from a monthly managers’ meeting held on July 14—include talking points for how to communicate system-wide about the gag order for library workers. 

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Library managers were specifically instructed “Don’t talk about it, and especially don’t use the word abortion,” and were told that libraries and individual workers “could be held liable in a civil suit for providing information that leads to someone procuring an abortion,” according to the meeting minutes. The notes also say that librarians can direct patrons toward medical databases, to a computer to run their own search, or to state statutes if patrons have questions about laws pertaining to the topic. 

The library worker who spoke to Motherboard is concerned about who has been given the authority in MLS to make these decisions, which seemingly contradict the American Library Association’s Principles of Intellectual Freedom. They note that within the Metropolitan Library Commission of Oklahoma County—which comprises 27 members who represent each municipality with a library or library extension located within its boundaries—only the library’s executive director, Larry White, holds a Master’s of Library and Information Science (MLIS) degree. 

“If you don't have an MLIS, why are you trying to make decisions about the library? It feels like the Roe v. Wade thing all over again,” the library worker said. “You’ve got people under the library managers who are required to have further education than them.” 

Notes from a July 14th managers meeting instructing library workers not to use the word 'abortion' or assist patrons looking for abortion information.

A representative from the Metropolitan Library System did not respond to Motherboard’s request for comment.

In a memo emailed to library staff Thursday morning, MLS executive director Larry White wrote that the guidance on abortion was sent in response to an initial review by the library system's legal team.

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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," 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."

Like Texas, Oklahoma has a law that lets individuals sue one another if they believe someone has obtained an abortion or assisted someone in obtaining an abortion. This means a person seeking abortion information could easily be an agitator using the law to target library workers.  

Nadine Farid Johnson, the Washington director of PEN America, said MLS’ actions show how the Dobbs decision is part of a worrying new trend that has turned public libraries into a culture-war battleground, and threatened to undermine basic First Amendment protections. Recently, librarians have been targeted by right-wing agitators over their inclusion of children’s books on LGBTQ+ topics, and libraries hosting Pride-themed events have been met with hostile disruptions from armed groups across the country.

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“We know that access to abortion care requires access to information,” Johnson told Motherboard. “When the sharing of information is criminalized or otherwise prohibited, free expression rights are imperiled. The blocking of access to abortion information on public library computers and the silencing of librarians, if true, constitutes a significant impingement on the right to access information, and infringes these public employees’ rights as they seek to serve their patrons by sharing information that is arguably of public concern.”

Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom, said that ALA stands firm in opposing any effort to suppress access to information about abortion — whether as a medical procedure or as a matter of public concern and individual liberty. 

“Access to information in a library is a First Amendment-protected activity and ALA will defend that right and work with libraries, library workers, and library users to protect it, as well as support and defend library workers whose positions are jeopardized because of their defense of their users’ right to freely access information,” Caldwell-Stone told Motherboard. 

It’s safe to assume the conversations happening at MLS in Oklahoma are also happening within library systems in other states with abortion restrictions. Library workers worry this forces information professionals across the country to choose between breaking the law and violating their duty as public servants. The library worker from MLS anticipates that despite this, librarians are going to help patrons procure reliable abortion information. 

“A lot of us are really tempted,” the library worker said. “I don’t know if everybody’s talking out their butt, but I strongly believe that morality-wise, anybody who cares more about their positions in a library than they do about their income from the library will support their moralities and give the information anyway.”

Update: This article was updated to include a memo sent by MLS executive director Larry White.

Tagged:

Censorship, oklahoma, Libraries, freedom of information, first amendment, librarians

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