The American Dissident: Literature, Democracy & Dissidence

Watertown Free Public Library—The Angry Librarian and the No-Trespass Order

Citizens in a free society must have courage—the courage to hear not only unwelcome political speech but novel and shocking ideas in science and the arts. In his opinion in the Whitney case, Brandeis sounded the theme of civic courage: Those who won our independence by revolution were not cowards. They did not fear political change. They did not exalt order at the cost of liberty. To courageous, self-reliant men, [...] no danger flowing from speech can be deemed clear and present, unless the incidence of the evil apprehended is so imminent that it may befall before there is opportunity for full discussion.
           —Anthony Lewis, "Freedom for the Thought That We Hate"

Ardis FrancoeurIn 2008, I was banned for six months by the director of the Watertown Free Public Library. Read the actual no-trespass order. This is what happened.


Thursday. It was cold, bleak, dark and gloomy, and arctic-like. That was New England in the winter. I took off at about nine, stopping in West Concord to fill the left front tire of my 91 CRX jalopy, then got on Route 2, where a big box suddenly detached from the truck in front of me and crashed into my windshield like a sledgehammer. I wrote down the plate number, then stopped to check it out. No damage. Lucky me.

My first stop for hawking The American Dissident was Brandeis University in Waltham. I'd had limited luck knocking on doors, but even less sending out letters. I liked Chief Justice Louis Brandeis alot and quoted him now and then. What better place then for The American Dissident, if not Brandeis University! The circ woman in the library was actually nice and helpful. But the acquisitions librarian wasn’t available. So I left a voice mail and would email a follow-up when I got back home. My next stop was Waltham Public Library. There the acq-woman was young... and snooty. I showed her a copy of The American Dissident.

“It has to be done through Ebsco!” she said. “We do everything through Ebsco!” “Well, Ebsco does do it,” I responded. “I gotcha there!” She frowned. “Just joking,” I said… to no avail. I ended up leaving a copy with her, circled my name and address on a flyer, and gave that to her also. “We don’t need that!” she snapped. “We do everything through Ebsco!” Christ, did they do their thinking through Ebsco too? What I should have done, as I contemplated in the car heading down route 20, was tell her off and not waste a copy on her. No way was the harpy gonna subscribe!

Watertown Free Public Library looked more encouraging—a bit bigger and more modern. But the library lot was shamefully metered. “Do they come around and ticket?” I asked a young blond putting money in her meter. “I don’t know, but I prefer playing it safe,” she responded. “Well, you’re smart and I’m not,” I said. She seemed to like that and smiled. Just the same, I put a quarter in the meter. Inside, the circ woman informed me the ref-desk was upstairs. So up I climbed. There, seated behind the counter, a woman in her 60s was jabbering on the phone. On and on, she jabbered. “I’ll be right with you,” she finally said to me. But she continued jabbering, so I walked over to the DVDs. Soon, she was off the phone. I walked back. Then she was back on the phone. So back to the DVDs I went. Back and forth for about a half hour I scurried until finally, she was free.

“Who do I need to talk with regarding subscriptions?” I asked holding up a copy of The American Dissident. “Do you order them?” “Well, no,” replied the woman, somewhat snooty-voiced. “Well, that doesn’t sound encouraging,” I said. “Can you tell me who I need to talk with?” “Well, I’ll take the information,” she said reluctantly. “That never leads to anything,” I replied. “I’d prefer talking with the person who actually does it. Can’t I see the person in charge?” “Well, yes, but I have to take the information,” she answered. “But this is a public library,” I insisted. “I should have the right to speak with the person in charge.” “Well, just give me the information,” she said again. By that time, a younger woman in her 40s or so appeared next to the older woman behind the counter in front of which I was standing.

“Is it available through Cox?” asked the 40-year old. “Who are you?” I asked. “I’m the head of reference,” she snapped. “No, but it’s available through Ebsco,” I said. “Okay, we don’t use Ebsco,” she said. “We use Cox.” “Do you have any information on Cox, so I can make an inquiry?” I asked. “No, you can find it on the Internet!” she said. “But I’m sure I’d find thousands of things under Cox,” I noted. “Is it Cox Magazine?” “Well, you know what, let me tell you right now,” she said testily. “Yeah?” I said. “I’m not going to order that magazine of yours!” she snapped. “I don’t think our patrons are that interested!” “But you didn’t even look at it,” I said. “You can leave!” she commanded. “Are you kicking me out of the library?” I asked. “I’m asking you to leave now, sir!” she insisted. “I want you to get the police to do that,” I said. “I’ve done nothing wrong!” “I’m asking you to leave!” she repeated angrily. “You’ve upset Ellie and now you’ve upset me!” “Well, I think the two of you have thoroughly upset me regarding your indifference to democracy,” I said. “What is your name?” “I’m not going to tell you!” she said. “We are upset now, so you can just leave!” she again ordered. “Just so you know, you now form part of the article I’m writing on libraries,” I said. “There’s only a certain amount of abuse we can take!” she replied. “What abuse?” I asked. “I’m not hollering, I’m not swearing, I’m not threatening! I was just trying to see if you’d subscribe to a locally-published magazine devoted to democracy.”

Had the "danger flowing from [my] speech" been "deemed clear and present," because "the incidence of the evil apprehended" was "so imminent that it” could “befall before there is opportunity for full discussion” (see quote)?

The head of reference walked around the counter, then downstairs to get the cops, I suspected. I walked back to the DVDs. Then, she was back behind the counter again. “So, where are the cops?” I asked. “They already left,” she said. “Well, what you need to do is build a thicker skin and stop moaning about verbal abuse any time you don’t like what a man has to say!” I tell her. She picked up the phone again. “Here, why don’t you read this and educate yourself regarding democracy and free speech,” I said, putting one of my flyers on the counter in front of her. “I suppose you’re a proponent of banned books week?” She immediately grabbed the flyer and tossed it into the garbage bucket, reminding me of the librarian at Nashua Public Library, who’d crumpled the flyer up and ran out furiously to hand the ball to me.

Finished, I began walking down the stairs. Ellie suddenly appeared, mumbled something. “You disgust me!” I said in a low voice, looking into her weak eyes, then continued down the stairs. At the circ desk, I checked out two DVDs. “I just had a battle with the head of reference,” I said to one of the women and asked for the chief’s name. “Ardis,” she said. I wrote it down. Another woman with thick Slavic accent behind the circ desk expressed visual interest in the flyer I’d put down on the counter. “Take it and put it in your pocket for later,” I told her. She did… and there was hope.

Outside, two squad cars arrived. I probably could have easily just walked to my car and left. But I was curious, so approached them. Two cops stepped out. “Are you here for the librarian?” I asked. “Yes,” one of them replied. “Well, I’m the guy she called you for,” I said. “I didn’t use any four-letter words, didn’t holler, and didn’t threaten anyone.” “Do you have an ID?” he asked. “Yes,” I said. “It’s here.” I slowly pointed to the pocket (I didn’t want to get shot!), then took out my wallet and driver’s license. “Should I call it in?” said the other one. “No,” said the first one. “So, what’s going to happen?” I asked. “Well, I don’t know what your history is with them,” said the first one. “Well, I don’t have a history,” I said. “It’s the first and last time I’ll ever be walking into that building. I’m not from around here.” The first one was now talking on the phone with the librarian in question, I suspected. “They’re going to trespass you from the library,” he eventually informed. “You’ll get a letter by certified mail explaining it. Then if you violate that, it’s an arrestable offense. She said every time you come here you get worse and worse.” “Well, as I said, I’ve never been here before.” “That’s not what she said,” replied the cop.

Oddly, or perhaps not, the cop station was right next to the public library. They could have walked over. Later at home, I’d peruse the library’s website to locate a few email addresses and found the following:

The Library Board of Trustees has adopted the following code of conduct in an effort to provide a safe, comfortable, and enjoyable library facility.
Any conduct that disrupts the delivery of library services or hinders others from using library materials is prohibited.
Any conduct that is potentially harmful to library materials or facilities is prohibited.
Library staff are authorized to enforce this code, and to call for police assistance or contact a parent or guardian when necessary. The Library reserves the right to revoke or restrict Library privileges in cases of violation of the code of conduct. The Library also reserves the right to inspect personal belongings when the library security system alarm is activated.

Had I violated that “Code of Conduct”? Not at all! I thought about what could happen and did happen to people in this country who didn’t break the law. Authorities didn’t even need a valid, legal reason to expulse someone like me from a public building. Nevertheless, the incident actually left me feeling more elated than depressed. Was it dissidence they hated so much? My long white hair? The lack of deference in my verb and tonality? Was I doomed? Of course, I was. How could a thinking citizen not be doomed in a society like ours? When back home, I’d email Library Director Leone E. Cole, Assistant Director Beverly Shank, and Head of Reference Ardis Francoeur, the woman who sought to have me arrested. I really wanted that no-trespass order as a tangible document.

Doubtfully, you’d be interested in the other side of the incident that occurred at your library Thursday, but one never knows, miracles do happen… or so they say. Thus, I include my account below in detail, transcribed from my recorder and memory. It now forms part of the larger essay I’ve written on my uphill battle trying to get local libraries to subscribe to the periodical I founded and edit. Doubtfully, you’ll take the time to read it, but one never knows, miracles do happen. It is, after all, much easier for you to simply accuse, find guilty without trial, and issue a no-trespass order as punishment. How odd, at least to me, that such things can and do actually occur regarding public spaces in America. BTW, I’ve perused your “Code of Conduct” and note I did not transgress it. Feel free to request a copy of the entire essay. I’d be delighted to share it with you via email. Finally, if in fact, I do not receive your no-trespass order, I will make it a point to come to your library again and talk to Ms. Francoeur.

Not one of them would respond to the email. Not one of them wished to discuss the matter. My Internet search also resulted in Francoeur’s photo (for a future cartoon) and website hosted by “Global Librarians Organizing. Bringing together those creating, organizing, & distributing knowledge worldwide.” Moreover, Francoeur kept a rather puerile blog:

"I mentioned earlier that both kitties took to the litter box right away, with no problems. Well, scratch that (ha! see what I did there?) there have been a few problems, all with Georgia. She doesn't cover her droppings. This isn't a huge issue, but it is a smelly one. She likes to pee right near the edge of the box, and she tracks stuff around: litter, poop."

So many citizens abhorred exchange of different ideas and vigorous debate. Instead, they wanted and needed to inhabit safe havens, where accountability and criticism were all but absent. So many of them were caught in a child’s mentality! After the Watertown experience, I continued on my way to Boston, wondering how many people were sitting in jail cells for doing nothing wrong with the exception of having questioned and challenged the etiquette of the day.

“Can I get you to subscribe to this?” I asked the obese woman at the circ desk at Brighton Public Library. “No!” she said robotically. “Can I get you to purchase this book?” I asked. “No!” she snapped. Not wanting to risk yet another encounter with law enforcement, at least not for the day, I left it at that and didn’t even respond. It formed a good conclusion to the day’s biblio-quest. I grabbed four DVDs but couldn’t find my wallet at the circ desk, so left the DVDs in front of the robotic desk grump. “Do you want me to save them for you?” she asked. “No thanks, I don’t think I’ll be back here again,” I said. In front of the library I’d chatted with a young fellow who said he was an insurance salesman. He was good at chatting, personable. “Do you know Afflac?” he asked. “How could I not?” I said. He was an odd character with a degree in biotechnology and a former vacuum cleaner salesman. He told me he voted for Nader and liked activism, handed me a pirated DVD: America Destroyed by Design. I thanked him and handed him a flyer.

Back at the car, I couldn’t find my wallet. I hunted and hunted, entering into severe panic mode. Shit, had I left it at Watertown? That was the last time I recall having it, pulling it out for the cops. I shut the door, walked back to the library, but then decided to do a final thorough hunt in the car. I opened the other door this time and lo and behold. What a fuckin relief! I would have had to cancel Tufts. Now, time was getting short. I sped off, got a tad lost in the suburbanitic jungle of roads and traffic, then hopped on to the Pike and roared 75 mph into Boston, hopped off at Storrow Drive, then to the parking lot, up eight flights to the goddamn roof until finally a free spot. And there upon the curb before me was an unopened bottle of foreign beer like a miracle! I grabbed it and put it in the car, then headed to the dental clinic, 10 minutes early. Amen.

Inside the jam packed elevator to the fourth floor, I said aloud out of the blue: “Question number one: Does democracy permit verbal abuse?” Nobody, of course, responded. In Massachusetts, if one spoke to strangers one might be a nutcase. Well, I supposed I was in a sense. Heather greeted me, then had me sit on the dental gurney waiting for 30 minutes, twiddling my thumbs, while she engaged in her one pm group huddle, as announced on the intercom. When she finally got back, she proceeded to shoot my left side up with Novocain, which was once cocaine, as she explained. She was a friendly student dentist. I liked her. We chatted a tad waiting for the drug to kick in. She asked if I like music. I mentioned Van M., and she seemed to love the guy.

Heather ended up doing a nice job scraping away the deep pocket calculus and plaque and had even attempted to explain via drawing what the hell she was doing. I didn’t quite get it all, but some of it I did. Then she had me sit for 30 minutes again, twiddling my thumbs, this time in the hope she could do the other side of my mouth, since there was ample time left. Finally, her dental prof arrived and explained a tad testily because he’d noticed I was getting a tad testy waiting and waiting that I should wait a month for the other side because he hadn’t noticed any calculus. Fine with me. Heather handed me another tooth kit and off I went back to the parking garage, then on to the mobbed roads and highway. I headed straight back to Concord—a tad less than an hour it took. Gloomy day indeed.

Back home, after detailing the day for J, I made flax noodles and ate four soy dogs for dinner. A little later, I began drinking red and watched Juno, a delightful (oh, I hate that word) film.

Days later I did in fact receive the order of no-trespass. I'd been accused, adjudged guilty, tried, and punished all by the same librarian! The order was replete with lies, including "disrupting patrons' use of library with inappropriate remarks and behavior." Patrons seemed not at all purturbed, let alone even aware, of the event. "Threatening remarks to staff" were never ever made. What precise inappropriate remarks and behavior and what threats are of course not mentioned. As mentioned above, one must wonder just how many citizens might be spending a day in jail for such hollow and unproven accusations. As for the "general disturbance" accusation, few patrons were even in the area. What constitutes a "general disturbance"? The term is so general that it could be applied to anyone at the whim of anybody.