Did Sarah Palin Ban Books When She Was a Mayor in Alaska?

Sarah Palin, whose political career stretched from Wasilla, Alaska, nearly to the White House, also foreshadowed increasingly extreme political actions.

There is no proof that Sarah Palin tried to institute a book ban early in her political career. But her successors in right-wing political circles and media have gone far beyond what Palin referred to as “rhetorical” questions about such measures.

Palin has not denied raising the prospect of doing so while serving as mayor of the town of Wasilla. As the Anchorage Daily News reported, the issue between Palin and the town’s librarian at the time, Mary Ellen Emmons, dated back to 1996.

Emmons told the local newspaper, the Wasilla Frontiersman, at the time that Palin had asked her three times whether she would remove “objectionable books” from the library. Each time, Emmons said, she refused. A local woman, Anne Kilkenny, recounted at least one discussion during a city council meeting in December 1996:

“Sarah said to Mary Ellen, ‘What would your response be if I asked you to remove some books from the collection?” Kilkenny said.

“I was shocked. Mary Ellen sat up straight and said something along the line of, ‘The books in the Wasilla Library collection were selected on the basis of national selection criteria for libraries of this size, and I would absolutely resist all efforts to ban books.'”

Palin said at the time that the conversation was rhetorical. The Anchorage Daily News reported that there were no records of books being pulled from the library’s shelves. However, Palin later targeted Emmons and other local officials:

Four days before the exchange at the City Council, Emmons got a letter from Palin asking for her resignation. Similar letters went to police chief Irl Stambaugh, public works director Jack Felton and finance director Duane Dvorak. John Cooper, a fifth director, resigned after Palin eliminated his job overseeing the city museum.

Palin told the Anchorage Daily News then that the letters were just a test of loyalty as she took on the mayor’s job, which she’d won from three-term mayor John Stein in a hard-fought election. Stein had hired many of the department heads. Both Emmons and Stambaugh had publicly supported him against Palin.

Emmons was still reportedly fired, before Palin walked that decision back following criticism from residents. Eamons maintained her position as librarian until August 1999, when she left Wasilla for a new position. Palin began her second term as mayor two months later.

In a 2008 statement to ABC News, Emmons said, “I simply do not recall a conversation with specific titles.”

Emmons also said that she was “unable to dispute or substantiate” claims by reporter Paul Stuart, who first covered Palin’s overtures for the Frontiersman, that she had told him that Palin wanted three specific books removed from library shelves.

While Palin, alongside John McCain, failed in her attempt to win federal office in 2008, book bans have become a staple of right-wing political organizing in the years since; as the Washington Post reported in April 2022, the American Library Association (ALA) had attributed 37 percent of book “challenges” the previous year to right-wing efforts. The newspaper also reported:

EveryLibrary, a national political action committee for libraries that tracks such challenges, said it has seen “dozens of new attacks” on libraries, their governing bodies and policies since the first of the year — in Texas as well as ongoing cases in Montana and Louisiana. In some cases, the challengers are being assisted by growing national networks such as the parental rights group Moms for Liberty or spurred on by conservative public policy organizations like Heritage Action for America, the ALA has said.

The ALA announced the following month that it would be working alongside more than 25 other groups to fight back against efforts to ban books.

“The majority of these bans target titles with racial and LGBTQ themes, cruelly erasing young readers’ lived experience,” said American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten.. “And while it’s uncomfortable to talk about tough issues like genocide, slavery and racism, reading honest history helps kids learn the good and the bad about our country and emerge as well-informed, engaged citizens of the world.”

In August 2022, Palin — who was Alaska’s governor at the time she was tapped to be McCain’s running mate — failed to win a new political position; she lost a special election for the state’s only House seat to Democrat Mary Peltola.

Update 9/1/2022, 3:44 p.m. PST: This article has been revamped and updated. You can review the original here. — ag