An Open Letter to the Board of Education and Superintendent

It was recently reported in the Mid-Hudson Times (Nov. 3, 2022) that the Newburgh Free Library (NFL) was directed to cancel a program on “Witchcraft in the 21st Century”. That article elicited a lot of consideration and prompted me to write this letter.

There was a time when many, if not most, libraries were formed and operated under the auspices of a Board of Education. That was 100 plus years ago, and over those years all but two libraries in New York moved to new entities with a Library Board of Directors and separate finances and operating principles. This was done because Libraries and School Districts have very divergent missions and operations that necessitate different philosophical and management oversight.

Libraries have a mission to provide information, education, and yes, entertainment, to their service population from cradle to grave. Libraries, to quote from the American Library Association “… are a cornerstone of the community dedicated to serving the information needs of everyone. As such, they collect and make available a wide variety of information resources representing the range of human thought and experience. With such a broad spectrum of ideas and information available, it is inevitable that people will occasionally encounter resources they believe to be inappropriate or offensive. They may complain and request that such resources be removed.”

The Newburgh Free Library Board (The Newburgh Enlarged Central School District NECSD) has signed on to the American Library Assoc. Bill of Rights with basic policies guiding their services.

1. Books and other library resources should be provided for the interest, information, and enlightenment of all people of the community the library serves. Materials should not be excluded because of the origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation.

2. Libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues. Materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.

3. Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment.

4. Libraries should cooperate with all persons and groups concerned with resisting abridgment of free expression and free access to ideas.

5. A person’s right to use a library should not be denied or abridged because of origin, age, background, or views.

6. Libraries which make exhibit spaces and meeting rooms available to the public they serve should make such facilities available on an equitable basis, regardless of the beliefs or affiliations of individuals or groups requesting their use.

The Library Bill of Rights has now been removed from the Newburgh Free Library website.

This Bill of Rights from the American Library Association has been endorsed by the NECSD and the NFL for over 30 years! Virtually every library in these United States endorse the Bill of Rights.

I worked at the Newburgh Free Library for over 20 years. I do not recall any stories of the Board or BOE staff ever censoring, yes, let’s call it what it is, censoring or removing a book or prohibiting a program. It just was not done. There are written procedures to address challenged books and programs. Were these procedures followed? I note with concern that the posted Library Policies, 9100.02 – dealing with Requests for Removal of Materials and 9100.04 Reconsideration of Materials have also disappeared from the library’s website.

During my time NFL had art shows in the gallery where a painted image of the hanging of Emmett Till was challenged – the art was left in place. The Gallery hosted an exhibition of the art of a Newburgh native who as a young teen killed someone. He served his time and became an accomplished artist. The frontpage THR story screamed out “Murderer’s Art Hangs on Library Walls” accompanied by a lurid photo taken through the banister rails intimating jail cell bars! The Library and District heard from many constituents alarmed with this show until they learned the circumstances of his incarceration and his efforts to better himself – the art remained in the gallery.There were more instances like these over the years, but a tempered review of the mission and operations of the library led to no other conclusions but to support intellectual freedom.

I hope the citizens of the NECSD / Newburgh Free Library will take time for a measured review of the recent controversary over a Halloween related program about witches and Wicca beliefs. It should be noted that the United States recognizes Wicca as a religion and the Wicca symbol, the Pentangle, is permitted to decorate the headstones in Military Cemeteries.

Should witch or Dracula costumes also be banned? What about a program on the Pilgrims or how about those Puritans who burned their witches? How about a program on the tenants of Protestantism, Catholicism, Islam, Baptists, Evangelicals, Jehovah, Buddha?
This is where it starts. Who is next? Afghans? Unions? Biology Teachers? Evolutionists? Scientists? You? Me?

Where will this go next when a small vocal group sets the agenda for the community, the State, the Nation?

– Chuck Thomas, Resident, City of Newburgh, NY.

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