Clampdown on free speech at Salt Lake City Library?
Workers face censure after management bans flak in emails.
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Salt Lake City Library employees say the latest chapter on staff turmoil is rich with irony: a clampdown on free speech inside the very institution that celebrates the principle.

A just-launched crackdown on any opinionated email — and on criticism of management expressed via social media — has some veteran librarians fearing for their jobs and a chorus of others crying censorship.

Now, for the first time since controversy enveloped Director Beth Elder last year, the library's nonprofit fundraising arm, Friends of the Library, is openly questioning the library's direction and its "chronic problems."

In recent days, the past president of the Utah Library Association was placed on administrative leave for challenging new restrictions placed on all-staff email. Another librarian was forced to delete a Facebook post critical of Elder. Others were scolded in private meetings called by Elder's administrative team.

And, according to several sources at the award-winning library, supervisors have told staffers they will sift through individual email accounts to look for any proof of insubordination and any criticism of library leadership or its policies.

Library spokeswoman Julianne Hancock calls that claim "categorically false."

Either way, library employees are plenty worried.

"You can't communicate. You're not allowed to dissent," said longtime substitute librarian Lucy Archer, adding that she was warned not to critique the email rule. "Everybody's on pins and needles. But what's interesting is that because of the way they're handling this by trying to gag people, it's making people even more vocal."

The uproar started last week after the human resources manager unveiled new guidelines for all-staff email. It is only appropriate, Shelly Chapman wrote, to send pertinent, work-related information such as available shifts and job announcements. "It was also determined," Chapman wrote, "that employees would not use all-staff email to voice opinions or express concerns."

"Appropriate" all-staff email must be reviewed by two staffers before sending, the edict reads. And "any other" all-staff email must be approved by the employee's manager.

That prompted veteran librarian Ranae Pierce — via an all-staff email — to point out the irony of the rule, given the library's free-speech mission.

"Er, apparently 'free and open access to information' doesn't apply to library employees," wrote Pierce, former leader of a state library association who then was placed on administrative leave and fears she will be fired.

"That this most democratic of sacred institutions — the public library — should feel it necessary to 'gag' its staff by limiting their access to 'the exchange of ideas' via email is as appalling as it is shameful," she wrote. "The best way to combat dissent is not to enact policies that provoke it."

"Incidentally," Pierce added, "this email was approved by at least two staff members." Both, several employees say, were summoned to meetings with top management.

Hancock declined to discuss any individual reprimands. "I can't comment on personnel issues," she said, calling it "common practice" for organizations to establish all-staff email rules. Yet, Hancock noted, the email restriction is just a guideline that cannot become policy until approved by the Library Board.

Even so, Pierce said in an interview she was forbidden from using her library email and told Tuesday not to report to work.

"We hold employees accountable for actions that are directly related to their employment," Hancock said, insisting that the library keeps an "open door to dialogue."

"We encourage those employees to bring forth their concerns through the appropriate channels," she added. "But we have no interest in curbing people's freedoms of speech."

Since last year, staffers have been on edge over Elder's management shake-up, intended to boost efficiency but also prompting an employee vote of no confidence in the director.

Elder's now-annual contract was renewed this spring but comes up for review after year's end.

Mark Alvarez, the lone board member who dissented on Elder's renewal, said he is disturbed that management seems to be developing procedures "in reaction to crisis."

"Many, many librarians hold themselves out as defenders of the First Amendment. I'm troubled by what I've heard," Alvarez said. "You don't shut down a communications system to stop dissent. I'm not saying that's happening here, but it might be."

For months, Friends of the Library — in the midst of the group's used-book-sale fundraiser — had remained publicly silent about the library controversies. No more.

"The Friends organization, a community-based volunteer group that raises money to support library programs, is very concerned about the chronic problems at the library and the direction it is going," said Friends president Jeannine Marlowe. "We are hoping to address the Library Board on Thursday."

Pierce expects a big crowd at that meeting, but blames management for the tumult.

"If you've been accused in the past of penalizing people for speaking their mind and then you turn around and do this, it seems inconceivable," she said. "You're cutting your own throat."

djensen@sltrib.com —

What's next?

P The Salt Lake City Library Board will hold its monthly meeting at 3:30 p.m. Thursday at the Anderson-Foothill branch, 1135 S. 2100 East.