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Speech tax? Library forced gender-ideology critics to pay for cops at event with no known threats

"I was led to believe that the police received intel that there were threats of violence" against Rhode Island event with activist "Billboard Chris" Elston, but emails suggest otherwise, organizer fumes.

Published: November 15, 2023 11:00pm

Conservative student groups have often complained – and sometimes gone to court – when college administrators impose crippling security fees on their events based on speculative threats of disruption, a sort of monetary heckler's veto.

Public libraries may be getting in on the action.

Emails suggest that the Cranston Public Library in Rhode Island's second-largest city knew of no credible threat against an event last year with a prominent Canadian critic of gender ideology in schools and pediatric medicine, yet forced its sponsor, the Independent Women's Network, to pay for a full police detail. 

It later revised policies in line with a trustee's suggestion to require outside groups to agree to pay whatever security fees it deemed necessary after the fact.

Rhode Island lawyer and education activist Nicole Solas, whose voluminous public records requests have antagonized the state's teachers unions and Attorney General Peter Neronha, shared her Access to Public Records Act (APRA) production with Just the News.

She was the organizer and a guest speaker for the Sept. 19, 2022, event along with Candice Jackson, a Department of Education civil rights official in the Trump administration who subsequently set up a law practice focused on protecting "sex-based rights." 

The featured speaker was Chris Elston, known as "Billboard Chris" because of the sandwich boards he wears in his street activism against puberty blockers, cross-sex hormones and surgical removal of healthy breasts and genitals for gender-confused minors.

Elston described his fall 2022 speaking engagements as a "tour of stochastic terror," re-appropriating a slur by progressive activists including Media Matters for America and transgender Harvard Cyberlaw Clinic instructor Alejandra Caraballo

They accuse Elston, Libs of TikTok and other gender-ideology critics of speech that provokes "statistically predictable but individually unpredictable" acts of violence. Such speech is protected by the Supreme Court's Brandenberg precedent.

The APRA emails show the library knew it couldn't legally stop the event based on its content, as LGBTQ activists were demanding, and should not try because of the precedent it could set against progressive events.

Yet they also conflated protected First Amendment activity with threats justifying a police presence and brainstormed other ways to derail the event and preempt similar events in the future. 

IWN ended up paying $1,460 – five officers, a cruiser and administrative fee – for a closed event that Ed Garcia, the library director, said drew only "a couple dozen individuals." 

Solas showed Just the News the Oct. 6, 2022 invoice for $1,860 and a March 2023 email from a Cranston Police billing clerk that waived $400. She had initially hired one officer for $240.

"I was led to believe that the police received intel that there were threats of violence" against the event to justify the security demand, Solas wrote in a direct message on X, formerly Twitter. 

"They tried to suppress my free speech with a thousand dollar price tag" based on the "irrational fears of paranoid librarians" who were simply facing public criticism for not canceling the event, Solas said.

She distinguished Cranston's demand with the decision of the Westerly Public Library – a private, non-profit library in Rhode Island – to pay for a police detail when Solas spoke there months later.

IWN has not "formally" sought reimbursement but would like to be paid back, she said. IWN didn't answer queries.

Solas requested Garcia's emails from Sept. 1 to Oct. 2, 2022 regarding the event, which turned up communications with library staff, its board of trustees and its legally distinct fundraising nonprofit, the Cranston Public Library Association.

Just the News made the document text-searchable.

Garcia is also executive director of CPLA, whose directors' names were scrubbed from its website after March 21, and he holds several top roles in the American Library Association, including chairman of the legislative committees for the national and state organizations.

The records production violated APRA, according to Solas, because the email addresses for the trustees and directors are redacted. She said CPLA's private status is irrelevant because of the context of the discussions. (Transparency obligations of public institutions' private fundraising arms is a hotly litigated topic.)

The strategizing started just ahead of Banned Books Week in 2022, which is sponsored by a wide coalition of groups including the ALA. The emails show no concern about threats against the library, event or protesters.

"We have started to receive complaint calls about holding this event," Garcia told the trustees Sept. 16, three days before the event. "We have concerns of potential protests so we have reached out to the Cranston Police to provide a detail during the event."

Trustee Larry Warner said he received "concerns" from the Thundermist Health Center, which has a transgender health program, because of previous "threats of violence" against similar centers "associated with the host group and speaker" following events.

Garcia cited "a lot of public concerns" in apprising library staff Sept. 18 of his discussions with the City Council, mayor, Cranston legal counsel and Michael H. Goldberg, who is a trustee and CPLA president. The library would have police on hand, he said.

Coordinator of Adult Services Dave Bartos, who called Elston a "self proclaimed terrorist," asked why they couldn't cancel the event based on IWN not getting preapproval for its press releases and flyers as required. Garcia said the city solicitor already shot that down because "we don't really follow that portion of the policy strictly" and it would backfire in court. 

Asked by Bartos how they could stop groups "fomenting hate and violence from using our rooms," Garcia said the trustees and administration will review its policies and procedures on "use of public spaces" and "tighten those up" to require more information, possibly a list of speakers.

Hours before the event, Garcia told staff the "library portion" of the building would be closed at 5 p.m. "due to security concerns for our staff" following "consultation" with police Chief Col. Michael Winquist. He gave no details on the concerns.

Garcia notified the CPLA directors of the "very controversial" event that morning.

"FWIW [For what it's worth], I have heard no controversy around room rentals," Director Alisson Walsh responded that afternoon. She took her dog "for his evening post-dinner stroll" around the library during the protests: "Quite a scene."

Goldberg breathed a sigh of relief after the Rhode Island ACLU gave the library a letter of support the day of the event. He said "the cost defending a law suit [sic] if the library tried to cancel would have done a number on the budget for the next few years."

But he asked what others thought about adding "a clause to the cont[r]act allowing the cost [of police] to get added to the private room rental after the contract is signed if there is an expense to the library for security?" 

The next morning, Goldberg suggested revising the policy to prevent rentals by groups that discriminate on a wide range of characteristics, including "immigration status," which would "permit us to refuse future rentals once it becomes obvious what a group promotes."

This would be unconstitutional and could get the library sued for discrimination, according to Solas. Goldberg did not respond to a direct message on Facebook, where he sometimes comments on the library's posts and identifies himself as a calligrapher and musician.

The library adopted half of Goldberg's ideas. The new meeting-room policy removed the phrase "in consultation with the group's liaison," now giving Garcia "sole discretion to determine the necessity of police presence," for which groups agree to pay in full.

It also expanded the library director's discretion to waive regulations. The old policy said "municipal-support groups" may qualify for exemptions, and the new one, just "support groups." 

Garcia's open letter to the community after the event praised "hundreds of our neighbors" for peacefully protesting against the "divisive and discriminatory rhetoric." It mentioned neither the police nor any threats received.

Like the CPLA directors' names, the open letter was scrubbed from the library website after March 21. The library's initial statement justifying the room rental, which included the ACLU statement, was scrubbed after March 22.

Garcia did not respond to requests to justify the redactions, detail any credible threat justifying police and explain the library's security requirements for other events by outside groups that may prompt polarizing responses, such as Drag Queen Story Hour.