The McCain campaign is defending Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s much-criticized inquiry into banning books at her hometown library, saying her questions were only hypothetical.
Shortly after taking office in 1996 as mayor of Wasilla, a city of about 7,000 people, Palin asked the city’s head librarian about banning books. Later, the librarian was notified by Palin that she was being fired, although Palin backed off under pressure.
Palin alleged attempt at book-banning has been a matter of intense interest since Republican presidential nominee John McCain named her as his running mate last month.
Taylor Griffin, a spokesman for the McCain campaign, said Thursday that Palin asked the head librarian, Mary Ellen Emmons, on three occasions how she would react to attempts at banning books. He said the questions, in the fall of 1996, were hypothetical and entirely appropriate. He said a patron had asked the library to remove a title the year before and the mayor wanted to understand how such disputes were handled.
Records on the city’s Web site, however, do not show any books were challenged in Wasilla in the 10 years before Palin took office.
Palin notified Emmons she would be fired in January 1997 because the mayor didn’t feel she had the librarian’s "full support." Emmons was reinstated the next day after public outcry, according to newspaper reports at the time.
Still, one longtime library staffer recalls that the run-in made everyone fear for their jobs.
"Mayor Palin gave us some terrible moments and some rather gut-wrenching moments, particularly when Mary Ellen said she was going to have to leave," said Cathy Petrie, who managed the children’s collection at the time.
Recent outrage has been fueled by Wasilla housewife Anne Kilkenny, whose 2,400-word critique of Palin’s legacy as mayor is widely posted on the Internet. Kilkenny described Palin’s actions as "out-and-out censorship."
But the McCain campaign, in a statement, said the charge "is categorically false … Governor Sarah Palin has never asked anyone to ban a book, period."
Emmons, a former Alaska Library Association president who now goes by Mary Ellen Baker, did not return calls seeking comment.
According to the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman newspaper, Emmons did not mince words when Palin asked her "how I would deal with her saying a book can’t be in the library" on Oct. 28, 1996, in a week when the mayor had asked department heads for letters of resignation.
"She asked me if I would object to censorship, and I replied ‘Yup’," Emmons told a reporter. "And I told her it would not be just me. This was a constitutional question, and the American Civil Liberties Union would get involved, too."
The Rev. Howard Bess, a liberal Christian preacher in the nearby town of Palmer, said the church Palin and her family attended until 2002, the Wasilla Assembly of God, was pushing to remove his book from local bookstores.
Emmons told him that year that several copies of "Pastor I Am Gay" had disappeared from the library shelves, Bess said.
"Sarah brought pressure on the library about things she didn’t like," Bess said. "To believe that my book was not targeted in this is a joke."
Other locals said the dust-up had been blown out of proportion.
"That was many years ago and Sarah never had any intention to ban books," said David Chappel, who served as Palin’s deputy mayor for three years. "There were some vocal people in the minority, and it looks like they’re still out there."
Jim Rettig, who heads the American Library Association based in Richmond, Va., suggested that lingering quarrel raises issues that are still relevant as librarians prepare to celebrate Banned Books Week later this month.
"Librarians are very committed to the principles of the First Amendment of the Constitution and that means we don’t allow one individual or a group of people to dictate what people can or cannot read," he said. "Most librarians if they got that sort of a question would be curious as to what the intent of the questioner was."