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BNP Request for Appeal (Bethlehem Public Library Board) 12/20/23

Wednesday, December 20, 2023

Mark Kissinger
Board of Trustees President
Bethlehem Public Library
451 Delaware Ave. 12054

Dear Mr. Kissinger and Members of the Board of Trustees of the Bethlehem Public Library:

On Thursday, December 14th, we received a letter from the Library Director informing us that Bethlehem Neighbors for Peace (BNP) has been sanctioned for one full year for allowing books to be sold outside the library on December 5th at the Miko Peled event.

We are writing to appeal what, by all accounts, is an arbitrary and capricious decision by the Board of Trustees to sanction BNP for a year.

We are certain, upon a careful review of the evidence by the members of the Board, that the unfounded decision to sanction BNP will be overturned and we will be able to continue hosting our regular public forums, which bring together people of diverse backgrounds and perspectives to engage in public learning, and thus continue to contribute to the library’s mission as a vital lifeline for the community.

The decision to sanction our organization from holding public events at a publicly funded space of learning is entirely out of proportion with the supposed “violation” that BNP has been accused of. It is difficult for us to believe that the sanction of a year is for the mistake of selling a few books in the parking lot of the library on the evening of December 5th.

In the absence of any evidence to the contrary, that the charge of “book selling” (at a public library!) has resulted in an egregious violation of our rights of free speech—speech which, we remind the board, had been approved through all the proper channels—can only be understood as a chilling decision meant to silence our organization from continuing its public commitment to dialogue, community education, and trying to bring about peace.

We believe that the real reason we have been sanctioned has little to do with the few books which were sold in the parking lot (at a public library!) but more to do with the effort on the part of some in the community to suppress the rights of BNP to bring speakers of diverse perspectives.

The evidence of this, as we will explain, is compounded by the Library Board’s seeming refusal to sanction others who in recent weeks have openly violated both your Mission Statement and Patron Policies. Your Mission Statement indicates that the purpose of the library is “to provide equal and uncensored access to the resources and services of the Library.” Your Patron Policy states that a patron must refrain from language or behavior that threatens, harasses, abuses or intimidates Library staff or interferes with the conduct of Library business or services. And yet, over the past several weeks, members of BNP have been verbally attacked, threatened, bullied, and subject to ad hominem attacks, most of this in public view of members of the Board, for which the only response has been silence.

The members of BNP have never acted in silence. Our regular public lectures are always widely announced and are open to any members of the community to attend. We have always gone through the proper channels and have always followed the Library’s guidelines. Despite the diverse speakers which we have brought to the community, often on controversial topics, we have never had to worry about the possibility of being unable to hold events at the Library. This is because a library is a public space funded with public monies. It is, therefore, a space set aside in society precisely for the exchange of ideas, which includes discussion, debate, and disagreement. If there is silence in a library, it should be the silence of deep thought, not the silencing of thinking.

It is because of our deep commitment to the values of the library that when we learned that an emergency Board Meeting was being called on December 4th due to “concerns” which were raised about our December 5th public lecture, we attended to answer any questions and address any apprehensions that people might have.

Yet, despite the openness with which we have always approached our work in the community, we were subject for several hours during this meeting to yelling, misrepresentations, name-calling, and, in some cases, extremely dangerous rhetoric. This was done in full view of the Board, and while we appreciate the decision to allow our event to proceed—an event, again, for which we had followed all guidelines—it was not the end of the attacks on our organization and our members.

We observed that the sole intention of the people who unsuccessfully attempted to stop our forum on the 4th was to attend the forum on the 5th with the goal of disrupting, harassing, and intimidating those who wished to hear a very important issue presented.

During the evening of December 5th, many of the BNP attendees were verbally harassed and intimidated by those in the community who were opposed to this event and who attempted, despite it being a widely announced public forum, to have the event cancelled. This included the absurdity of calling the police three times to claim that Miko Peled, a well-known, extensively published, and respected writer on the Middle East who has spoken all over the world, and a faculty member from the University at Albany, were engaged in “hate speech.” One of our members had a sign that said “love one another” repeatedly removed from the table and thrown on the floor. We were constantly referred to as “anti-Semitic” for simply allowing free speech on a current event. We tried to avoid any further distractions by not asking for help from the Director or the police in order to keep the focus on the exchange of ideas and not to create the scene that some seem to have wanted to happen. When we had to take it upon ourselves to ask one member of the audience to leave because of her ongoing harassment, she refused to leave or stop. One of the Trustees even had to explain to the audience that our forum is protected by free speech and that it was not hate speech. As organizers of the event, BNP members elected not to report or pursue these actions, which clearly violated your policies, during that evening, and there have been no consequences for the people who were shouting and constantly interrupting our guest speaker.

Yet, the verbal harassment of BNP members at the library did not stop on December 5th, and there were several instances at the follow-up board meeting where attendees felt they could personally intimidate one of us (Leslie), as a member of BNP. These practices, again, were witnessed by the Board, and yet no one on the Board demanded that the Patron Policies be followed, nor have there been any consequences for those who violated this policy in full view of the Board. Some of the people who have been attempting to silence BNP and prevent us from holding our regular public forums are now calling BNP a “terrorist” organization on Facebook, trying to incite violence against our peace group.

As the members of the Board are all aware, we have participated in and sponsored public forums supporting diverse perspectives for 20 years. This is a sign of our strong commitment to public discourse and free speech and our support for the Bethlehem Library as a necessary space where such debates can occur. We are active members of the community, and our forums contribute to expanding the community to include the excluded, the marginalized, and the silenced.

The Board’s decision to sanction BNP for a year—preventing us as members of the public from using a public space for public educational events—is therefore all out of proportion to the violation we have been accused of. For many years, we have displayed and sold educational books at the library. In fact, our December 5th speaker, Miko Peled, spoke at an Albany Public Library in 2017 and at the Bethlehem Public Library in 2018, for an event hosted by the Palestinian Rights Committee, which included a talk and to sell his newest book. It was advertised as an author book signing and completely supported by the Bethlehem Public Library. The flyer is attached for your recollection.

Sometime in 2019, we were informed by a librarian at one of our forums that we could no longer sell books in the library. We complied with that request from that time forward. We never questioned the policy, and although we had no knowledge that the prohibition on selling books included all library premises, we have upheld that policy. Because of this, the issue has never come up and we did not read any new policy changes.

When Miko arrived at the library on December 5th, it was about 3 minutes before the program was to start. We did not see Miko place his books on the registration table as we were extremely distracted by the crowds gathering in the lobby to hear him speak. As soon as the Director saw the books, he asked one of us (Trudy) to remove them. She had not seen them initially either but immediately complied with the Director’s request and put them on the floor under the table. When the very distressful evening concluded, Leslie brought the books outside as her husband was returning Miko to his hotel. People rushed up to her and asked if they could have a book. She gave them out as a gift, but the takers approached Miko in the parking lot to have them signed and then paid him for them.

BNP did not sell any books. Any books that were sold that evening were sold by Miko Peled. He had spoken at this Library in the recent past and at that time had been encouraged to sell books, so he had no way of knowing that a book policy had been changed. This is not a matter of shifting blame to the speaker. It is to demonstrate that the supposed “violation” on the part of BNP is entirely ungrounded. BNP did not sell any books and the person who did very briefly sell books was unaware that the library’s policy had changed, an entirely understandable error due to the fact that he had spoken and sold books at the library just a few years ago.

That such a minor error has resulted in the unprecedented and all out of proportion sanctioning of BNP for a year—a punishment for which there is no support in the library’s guidelines—is evidence that this decision by the Board of Trustees is not about one minor violation. It is difficult to see how, if this were any other speaker on any other topic, the Board’s decision would have been the same. We are being sanctioned for participating in the practices we have engaged in for more than twenty years, advocating for peace and justice throughout the world. That some in the community have now made a goal of silencing BNP and its commitment to free speech and the free exchange of ideas, no matter how uncomfortable they might be, should not be supported by the Board of Trustees of a public library.

The arbitrary implementation of Library policy is effectively preventing BNP from continuing its educational outreach to the community. These are difficult and distressing times, but silencing dissent does not make the difficult easy or the distressing comfortable.

We expect, with the wisdom of hindsight and having time to think about their decision, the Board will see the chilling effect on free speech that their decision to sanction BNP will have on the community and will, therefore, reverse their decision, which will allow us to continue our public work and more importantly uphold the Library’s mission “to provide equal and uncensored access to the resources and services of the Library.”

However, if the decision of the Board of Trustees is allowed to stand, we will have no other choice but to explore every avenue available to us to restore our rights as members of this community.

We look forward to hearing from you and your decision on our appeal.


Leslie Hudson and Trudy Quaif
Members of Bethlehem Neighbors for Peace