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Illinois House considers bill strengthening penalty for threatening library employees

The entrance to the Fondulac District Library, a stone and glass entryway in the East Peoria Civic Complex.
Collin Schopp
The director of the Fondulac District Library, pictured here, is one of several area librarians who have signed a witness slip in support of House Bill 4567.

A bill to strengthen protection for employees of Illinois libraries is heading to the House floor.

House Bill 4567 would amend the criminal code outlining the consequences of threatening public officials, like school employees and elected officials. If the bill passes, the law would also cover library employees and threats made through electronic means, like social media.

Illinois Library Association [ILA] President Ryan Johnson said the bill comes at a time when threats against public libraries are escalating in frequency and intensity.

“I think it’s no secret that, since COVID, we’ve seen an increase in vitriol in some of our public dialogue that we’ve had. Of course, it started with schools, with mask mandates and things like that. You know, school board meetings getting out of hand and people protesting in front of schools,” said Johnson. “That has slowly migrated to other public spaces, including libraries.”

Last fall, a string of bomb threats temporarily closed some Illinois libraries. The threats prompted a response from Secretary of State and Alexi Giannoulias, also the state librarian. He is a major backer of the bill; a statement released earlier this month says in part:

“We have seen 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.”

Genna Buhr is director at the Fondulac District Library in East Peoria. As a member of the ILA, she signed a witness slip in support of the bill. Besides the obvious impact of threats on library employees, Buhr points out an impact on the broader community.

“You’re dealing with closed library spaces, inability to access services, staff that kind of need to regroup after a really intense experience,” said Buhr. “And it’s an intense experience for the community as well, because they rely on the library being a safe space.”

If the bill passes, Buhr sees an opportunity to make it clear to librarians that their service is valued.

“I think they would feel recognized and validated that the work they do here is important and vital, which it is, of course,” she said. “That it does get those kinds of additional, recognized protections.”

However, not everyone is on board with the legislation.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois is opposed to penalty enhancements in general, including those for repeat offenders included in this bill.

Generally, threats and intimidation carry the possibility of anywhere between 2 and 10 years jail time in Illinois. Threatening a public official can raise the penalty from a Class 3 to a Class 2 felony, especially for a repeat offense.

Benjamin Ruddel, director of criminal justice policy for the Illinois ACLU, acknowledges the bill is in response to a trend of hateful threats against librarians. However, he’s skeptical of how much safety it actually provides.

FILE - A pile of challenged books appear at the Utah Pride Center in Salt Lake City on Dec. 16, 2021. Attempted book bannings and restrictions at school and public libraries continue to surge, according to a new report from the American Library Association. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)
Rick Bowmer/AP
FILE - A pile of challenged books appear at the Utah Pride Center in Salt Lake City on Dec. 16, 2021. Attempted book bannings and restrictions at school and public libraries continue to surge, according to a new report from the American Library Association. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

“The people who are making these threats are unlikely to be deterred under an enhanced penalty, just like they’re not deterred under the current criminal prohibition for making these kinds of threats,” Ruddell said. “These kinds of penalty enhancements allow elected officials to say they’re doing something about a problem, but there’s no enhanced safety.”

Ruddell suggests that, if law enforcement officials aren’t currently taking threats against library workers seriously enough under the current law, legislators should address that issue before enhancing penalties for offenders.

“It’s kind of a never-ending cycle of pitting groups of people against one another and saying ‘This group of people doesn’t have the same protection as this other group of people that has an enhanced penalty for being the victim of a threat or an assault under a criminal statute,’” said Ruddell. “And there’s really no end to it.”

Johnson said he can see the merit of the ACLU’s argument, but he still has concerns.

“I’m not sure that solving those root causes is something that can be done legislatively, but increasing penalties is,” he said. “So it’s not a magic bullet. It’s not a panacea. But it is a gesture, it’s a step in the right direction, albeit a small one.”

Johnson said he hopes the dialogue happening around the issue now will lead to more “substantive” solutions down the road.

It remains to be seen whether the bill will be passed in the first place. It currently awaits a second reading and debate on the House floor.

Collin Schopp is a reporter at WCBU. He joined the station in 2022.