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Measure enhancing penalties against individuals who threaten libraries advances

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(The Center Square) – Illinois Secretary of State Alexi Giannoulias is spearheading legislation to enhance penalties against people who threaten libraries.

The measures are sponsored by state Rep. Anne Stava-Murray, D-Naperville, and state Sen. Laura Murphy, D-Des Plaines. House Bill 4567 heads to the House floor after passing committee Thursday.

In the Judiciary-Criminal Committee hearing, Murray said there’s been an uptick in threats of violence against Illinois libraries.

“We saw in the 81st District, bullet shells delivered to our library after we announced there was going to be a drag queen bingo for high school students,” said Murray. “That had to be canceled due to that.”

The Downers Grove Public Library canceled a drag queen bingo event planned for October 2022 after receiving a threatening letter that contained a bullet. The event would have featured drag performer Aurora Divine calling bingo numbers. Divine regularly hosts bingo Thursday nights at a Chicago bar called My Buddy’s. This week, the bar hosted Angelica Maria, a “show girl” who presented a show called “The Tease Tease.”

That wasn’t the only reading event canceled in Illinois.

After receiving “concerns,” library officials at Somonauk Public Library canceled the January 2024 Brave Books reading event featuring General Michael Flynn, who served as the 24th United States National Security Advisor under the Trump administration.

Beck Nelson, a Somonauk resident, said Democratic politician Heidi Henry got campaign supporters to urge the library cancel the event.

Henry told The Center Square she receive several emails from campaign supporters urging her to do something about the event. Henry said she was cordial and asked the library to host someone who “didn’t try to help overthrow our government.”

It was a private group who rented a community room where the private group was going to host Flynn.

“I would never threaten a librarian,” said Henry. “I would never discourage anyone from reading to children.”

Kiara Tyrrell, a library staff member, said at a highly attended library board meeting, the event was called off for fear of protests at a children’s function.

“There was no reason for fear,” said Henry.

Henry said she encouraged her campaign supporters to “leave it alone” and to not “misbehave” especially because there were kids possibly attending the event.

Henry faces state Rep. Jed Davis, R-Newark, in the general election.

“The emails [obtained by the Freedom of Information Act] say that the library director [Julie Harte] was putting the community at risk by having Flynn, 39 years of service to our country, come to our library,” said Nelson.

Harte could not be immediately reached for comment.

“This event wasn’t about politics … it was about inspiring our children through the magic of literature,” said Beth Findley Smith, a La Salle County Board member.

Smith said “leftists” waged complaints about the event being hosted in a community room. Brave Books is a company that sells books that “celebrate families and honor traditional values.”

Murray said between July 2023 and September 2023, there were 22 known bomb threats. State Rep. Will Guzzardi, D-Chicago, said he understands public servants are exposed to vitriol and disparagement, but worries this bill will expose people to extreme consequences.

“I think that the kinds of threats you describe could be charged as assault under our current law,” said Guzzardi. “We are taking this quite seriously as we should but I am always cautious we might expose people to quite serious consequences.”

Under the proposed law, individuals who send two “threatening messages” by electronic media would be subject to a Class 2 felony.

HB4567 enhances penalties for individuals who make threats to not just librarians and library employees, but library buildings. Guzzardi said buildings, like movie theaters, aren’t given special treatment under the law.

“There are criminal penalties for threats to those kinds of buildings [movie theaters] but this would be enhancing the penalty for a threat to a library from the threat that we make against any traditional building to this sort of ‘special status’ that schools are given,” said Guzzardi.

Amy Williams, an attorney at the Illinois Secretary of State’s Office, said Giannoulias, who also serves as the state librarian, is proud of the bill and takes violence against libraries seriously.

“They [movie theaters and other buildings] aren’t getting targeted and libraries are,” said Williams. “We become the target of people seeking to intimidate us and scare us from doing our jobs as public servants. These threats are vile and violent and very, very scary. They know where we work and they know our names.”

Giannoulias said there’s been an escalation of violence seeking to censor and restrict information.

“This is harmful, not only to these public servants, but to our democracy as a whole. In the face of these threats, this bill highlights the commitment of our state to protecting library workers, access to information and the free exchange of ideas,” said Giannoulias.

Guzzardi said he wants the threats to stop.

“I think it’s really scary stuff but I want to caution that it’s not always the case that enhancing penalties around certain types of behavior is an effective way of making sure that behavior doesn’t happen,” said Guzzardi.

Williams said the Springfield Police and the Illinois State Police told the office that despite the “vulgarity” of the threats, they wouldn’t charge the individuals who made the threats with assault.

The bill will give law enforcement the tools to investigate individuals and “stop the crimes at the root,” Williams said.

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