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California Library Changes Free Speech Policy After ADF Lawsuit

The Yolo County Library in California had shut down an event because the presenters criticized men’s participation in women’s sports.
Alliance Defending Freedom
Former college athlete Sophia Lorey

Few institutions embody our cherished freedom of speech quite like public libraries. They’re spaces explicitly designed to disseminate information and host the public—at no charge—so that we all can learn and share ideas.

What’s more, libraries often serve as convenient public meeting places where groups can gather to hold meetings, give presentations, and have discussions. So it would make sense that the government employees who run these libraries would be committed to promoting free expression.

Because librarians have the unique job of disseminating a wide range of perspectives and voices, they ought to understand the importance of free speech as much as anyone. But two librarians in Yolo County decided it was more important to push the government’s preferred views than to encourage free expression.

Concern over family values

On Feb. 25, 2023, the Yolo County chapter of a parental-rights advocacy group called Moms for Liberty reserved the Blanchard Room at Yolo County’s Mary L. Stevens – Davis Branch Library. The group planned to host a discussion about children’s books published by the company Brave Books, which promotes traditional family values.

Two librarians expressed concerns that Moms for Liberty – Yolo County Chair Beth Bourne had been accused of “transphobia” by other parents. Another library employee contacted a local LGBT group and labeled Beth a “vocal anti-trans member of the community.” The employee even asked to schedule a “drag queen story hour” around the same time as the Moms for Liberty event in an apparent attempt to counter the perception that the library approved of Moms for Liberty’s message.

One librarian took multiple steps to undermine the event in the days leading up to it, including sending an email to staff that labeled Moms for Liberty as “anti-LGBTQIA, anti-woke, [and] anti-critical race theory.” About 25 people attended the event, including three protesters, and it went on without disruption.

Over the next five months, Moms for Liberty hosted a series of events in the Blanchard Community Room. At a March screening of a movie detailing the harmful and irreversible consequences of so-called “gender transitions,” a protester stood at the front of the room holding up signs, and additional protesters outside made disruptive noise that made the film hard to hear.

And at an event in May exploring whether certain books available in local schools and libraries are inappropriate, about 15 protesters spoke out of turn, disrupted the event, and prevented it from going on as planned. The library didn’t remove any of the protestors, stop them from interrupting the event, or discipline them.

Punished for speaking the truth

The library did not stop at allowing others to disrupt Moms for Liberty events. Instead, it went even further in August when Moms for Liberty hosted an event titled “Forum on Fair and Safe Sport for Girls.” The event aimed to “[e]mpower and protect girls’ sports and female athletes,” “[d]efend the original intent of Title IX,” and “[c]reate a powerful network of coaches, parents, and girls’ sports supporters.”

Before the event, a librarian told the organizers that California state law recognizes “transgender” as “protected” and that they would have to defy biological reality by referring to men who identify as women as women. In other words, he asked them to concede the very point they were trying to argue against.

The librarian cited the vague “Library Code of Behavior,” which requires anyone on library property to “[t]reat people, materials, and furniture with respect.” He said that if the event participants spoke in accord with biological truth, they would not be showing “respect” to people who identify inconsistent with their sex. And thus he would remove the presenters from the library.

During the event, former women’s college soccer player Sophia Lorey began discussing her experience in athletics. But as soon as she mentioned her concerns about men playing on women’s sports teams, a protester began heckling her. The librarian told Sophia that “California state law recognizes trans women as women” and that she would be forced to leave if she did not parrot that belief.

Sophia tried to continue her talk, but protesters laughed and drowned her out when she explained that “no matter how hard biological girls work, they will … never be able to be physiologically faster and stronger than biological men that are trying to play in biological female sports.” The librarian then demanded that Sophia leave because she was speaking consistent with scientific reality and threatened to shut down the entire event.

Even though Sophia moved from the podium, the librarian proceeded to cancel the program, and he unplugged the projector during the next speaker’s presentation.

Yolo County Library revises its policy

Yolo County Library designated the Blanchard Room as a public space for groups to share their beliefs. But by enforcing overbroad and vague policies to censor speech, the library unlawfully discriminated against the Forum participants because it did not like their views. The library imposed its own desired orthodoxy.

Sophia simply stated a biological fact when she explained that men have physical advantages over women in sports. Men and women are different, and government officials cannot punish people for stating this fact.

Alliance Defending Freedom sent a demand letter to Yolo County Library requesting a confirmation that it would allow the participants to reschedule their Forum and prevent the audience from disrupting their event. But the library declined to provide those assurances. As a result, attorneys with ADF and the Institute for Free Speech filed a lawsuit against the library.

Months later, library officials agreed to a settlement in which they would change their policy and allow Moms for Liberty to use the library for its Forum. The rescheduled Forum went off without a hitch.

The library’s revised policy mandates that staff “shall not interfere with presentations or other speech by individuals or groups that have reserved meeting rooms based on the content of such speech” and instructs staff to “curtail any disruptive behavior” during events.

Government officials—public librarians included—cannot shut down speech they don’t like. Women like Sophia have the right to speak about men competing in women’s sports. Sophia spoke the truth. And that’s exactly what the First Amendment protects.

Moms for Liberty – Yolo County v. Lopez

  • August 2023: The Yolo County Library shut down Moms for Liberty’s “Forum on Fair and Safe Sport for Girls” because it did not like the beliefs being shared.
  • September 2023: ADF attorneys sent a demand letter to the library, but the library declined to ensure it would respect First Amendment rights.
  • December 2023: Attorneys with ADF and the Institute for Free Speech filed a lawsuit against the library.
  • May 2024: In a settlement of the lawsuit, library officials agreed to change their policy and allow Moms for Liberty – Yolo County to hold its event. The officials also agreed to pay $70,000 in damages and attorneys’ fees.