Texas librarian to receive PEN/Newman’s Own First Amendment Award
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
New York, NY, April 2, 2003—PEN American Center today named Jerilynn Adams Williams, a Texas librarian who successfully turned back an attempt to remove books from circulation at Montgomery County public libraries, as the recipient of this year’s prestigious PEN/Newman’s Own First Amendment Award. Ms. Williams will receive the $25,000 prize, along with a limited-edition artwork, at PEN’s annual Gala on April 22, 2003 at the Pierre Hotel in New York City.
In August 2002, a dozen community members appeared before a meeting of the Commissioners’ Court in Montgomery County, Texas to demand that the book It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex & Sexual Health be removed from county library shelves, complaining that the book was obscene and promoted homosexuality. Jerilynn Adams Williams, the Montgomery County Library Director, happened to be present at the meeting to discuss the Library System’s annual budget as well as a proposed $10 million bond issue for library improvements. She watched in amazement as the County Judge Alan B. Sadler, without having read or reviewed the entire book, completely disregarded the established process for challenging materials in the county’s libraries, sided with the citizens, and ordered the immediate removal of the book from library shelves.
Armed with 35 years of library experience and an unshakeable faith in the processes libraries have devised to review challenges to their collections, Ms. Williams was able to persuade the Judge and County Commissioners that the book should have a proper hearing under established procedures. She then spent three months working to restore It’s Perfectly Normal to library shelves.
With patience, courage, and equanimity, she educated public officials and the community as a whole on the process for challenging library materials and the importance of following that process. She coordinated changes in the makeup of the reconsideration committee to include 5 citizens and worked with designated library staff to distribute information to committee members about the book, a critically-acclaimed young adult-oriented work on human sexuality. Ms. Williams spoke eloquently on the issue of censorship in public meetings and press interviews. She did so in the face of personal threats and an organized campaign inflamed by Reverend Bill Craft, a local community member, who demanded that she be fired and that the county library system withdraw from the American Library Association. In the end, her conviction and approach prevailed, and the Commissioners’ Court accepted the review panel recommendation and ordered It’s Perfectly Normal and It’s So Amazing, a companion book by the same author, returned to library shelves. Shortly thereafter, the residents of Montgomery County approved the $10 million bond for library improvements.
This is by no means the only time Ms. Williams has courageously defended Montgomery County citizen’s universally-guaranteed right to seek, receive, and impart information freely. In early 2000, she was attacked for not supporting Internet filtering on all public access computers. Ignoring information regarding the unconstitutionality of such absolute restrictions and the imperfect nature of filtering software, the Commissioners’ Court unanimously voted to have filtering software placed on all of the Library’s public computers. Working with senior staff, Ms. Williams was able to win Court approval for a modified Library System’s Internet Use Policy, which now allows adults working in an adult area to request the disabling of the filtering software.
Ms. Williams’ courage and grace under pressure has earned her the respect of her colleagues. “It is a dynamic she constantly faces,” said Patricia Smith, Executive Director of the Texas Library Association. “She has faced it repeatedly, and she always perseveres with a vision to the future and a faith that the community can work through the issue fairly and wisely when it understands the issues.”
“Librarians like Jerilynn Williams are on the front lines of censorship battles every day, their commitment to intellectual freedom often the only thing standing between us and the book-burners,” added Pat Schroeder, President and CEO of the Association of American Publishers and one of this year’s PEN/Newman’s Own Award judges. “Her actions are doubly impressive because her fight to keep books on the shelves was carried on even as she sought needed library funding. We celebrate her grace and courage in defending the right to read.”
This is the eleventh anniversary of the PEN/Newman’s Own First Amendment Award, which was established by actor Paul Newman and author A. E. Hotchner to honor a U.S. resident who has fought courageously, despite adversity, to safeguard the First Amendment right to freedom of expression as it applies to the written word. Jerilynn Adams Williams was nominated by Susan Hershberg of Candlewick Press, the publishers of It’s Perfectly Normal and It’s So Amazing. The judges for the 2003 award were acclaimed authors and PEN Trustees Philip Gourevitch and Francine Prose; Patricia Schroeder, former U.S. Congresswoman and current President and CEO of the Association of American Publishers; Anthony Romero, Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union; and Patricia Williams, the James L. Dohr Professor of Law at Columbia University.
Larry Siems, (212) 334-1660, ext. 105, email@example.com