ACLU Urges Kansas Public Library Not to Censor Employee for Discussing Historic Sodomy Ruling

Affiliate: ACLU of Kansas
July 16, 2003 12:00 am

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TOPEKA, KS – Citing serious First Amendment violations, the American Civil Liberties Union today sent a letter to the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library asking that it reconsider its actions in forbidding one of its staff members from talking at work about the recent historic Supreme Court ruling banning sodomy laws.

“”It’s against the law for a public employer to prevent employees from talking about pressing social issues at work if it’s not keeping them or their coworkers from doing their jobs,”” said Ken Choe, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s Lesbian and Gay Rights Project.

The library employee, Bonnie Cuevas, was ordered on the day after the ruling to stop discussing the decision and its impact on her family. No other library staff members were placed under the same restriction.

“”This was the biggest legal step forward in lesbian and gay rights in history,”” said Cuevas, a longtime Topeka activist and member of Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG). “”A public library, of all places, should understand why I, as the mother of a gay son, took a few minutes of time to talk about it.””

On June 26, the day of the Lawrence v. Texas decision, Cuevas was approached by one or two co-workers and received a few unsolicited calls from friends who wanted to share their excitement over the decision with her. Cuevas also received a brief unsolicited call from a reporter who wanted a comment on the significance of the decision for gay and lesbian people and their families. None of these conversations lasted more than a couple of minutes, Cuevas said.

The next day, Cuevas received one more short call from a friend about the decision. Not long after that, two library managers called Cuevas into a meeting where they told her that she was absolutely prohibited from ever speaking about Lawrence v. Texas at work again. To justify the censorship, the library managers told Cuevas that a co-worker had complained that Cuevas was creating a “”hostile work environment.”” When Cuevas asked whether her talking with the press had been a concern, the managers told her it was not.

“”We hope that the library will agree that issues affecting the lives of lesbian and gay people – especially something of the magnitude of the Lawrence v. Texas decision – are a compelling concern for those of us who live and work in Topeka,”” said Pedro Irigonegaray of Irigonegaray & Associates, who is working with the ACLU to represent Cuevas. Irigonegaray added, “”I have immense respect for the professionals who operate our library, but this is a moment in our history when libraries ought to be defending freedom, not limiting it.””

Since the June 27 meeting with library managers, Cuevas has complied with the restriction on her speech. Although some of her co-workers continue to discuss the Lawrence decision, they have not been reprimanded.

“”Libraries are the places that we most rely upon to encourage the free expression and exchange of ideas,”” said Dick Kurtenbach, Executive Director of the ACLU of Kansas and Western Missouri. “”We hope that when the library administrators examine the silencing of Ms. Cuevas more closely, they will see that a grave mistake has been made.””

In its letter, the ACLU asked that the library lift its restrictions on Cuevas’s speech in compliance with the law and expressed its hope that the matter can be resolved without resorting to litigation.

The letter is online at: /node/34967.

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