By Shereen Siewert | Wausau Pilot & Review

A petition to support funding for the Marathon County Public Library has nearly 800 signatures so far, just days after the effort launched.

The Marathon County Public Library Alliance, a group with more than a dozen members, posted the petition on “Fight for the First,” a platform that supports First Amendment causes.

“Some County Supervisors have threatened to dismantle the county library system,” the petition reads. “This would destroy years of collaborations between all the communities in Marathon County. Tell your Supervisor that the Marathon County Public Library is an essential service and it needs to be fully funded.”

The fight over library funding has entered a new phase, amid continued demands to rate or remove books and other materials by members of the community and some Marathon County supervisors. In an email sent to library officials, County Administrator Lance Leonhard and other recipients, Dist. 23 Supervisor David Baker said he’s considering forming an “unofficial Library Community Standards Alignment” work group to help resolve differences between the library board and some residents “concerned with the direction of the Marathon County Library.” One of the options to consider, Baker said, is abolishing the County Library system altogether and transfer control to each municipality to “follow their respective community standards.”

Wausau Pilot & Review in October reported on Baker’s wishes, which also included pulling nearly $3 million from the library’s budget to replace its HVAC system.

The legal implications of such a move could be significant. Last year, several supervisors spoke publicly and in emails about their dissatisfaction with the library board’s decision to retain materials they personally objected to and discussed ways to pressure the library board to change their policies – including slashing the budget.

“…One option that we always have is that of funding. I suggest that we use it and apply a significant reduction in funding for the library,” Supervisor Tony Sherfinski wrote, in an email to 23 of the 38 county board supervisors last year.

And Supervisor Craig McEwen, whose 2022 proposal to cut the MCPL’s funding by $69,000 ultimately passed, spoke last year about the institution’s “pornographic materials” and said he wished “the Marathon County Library Board would have taken this serious before we had to start talking about their budget.”

An outside attorney in February who reviewed previous threats by county supervisors to reduce funding for the public library concluded that those actions violated First Amendment protections, placing the county at potential legal risk.

The von Briesen report cited case law validating their conclusion that such retaliatory actions put the county at risk of a lawsuit that would be difficult to defend. Courts are firm that if the government’s decision to censor public library materials is substantially connected to content or viewpoint discrimination, that conduct violates the First Amendment.

Last week, 18 of 22 speakers Thursday during a public hearing on the county’s budget proposal were opposed to any budget cuts for the library.

Some people signing the petition have also left comments detailing their stance.

“Dismantling education systems or restricting access to books/education is horribly dystopian and harmful,” wrote Victor A. “Information should be available to everyone on whichever topics they want to educate themselves on.”

View the petition and comments here.