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Mother Teresa and Margaret Sanger do not mix

The American Library Association gets hundreds of calls a year from libraries tackling book challenges and other forms of censorship. Heck, we even celebrate with banned book week. Our Office of Intellectual Freedom (OIF) takes these calls and advises librarians on their options.

One library director in the small town of Trumbull in Connecticut called OIF when people objected to a painting on display at the Trumbull Public Library. It was part of a series of works by Robin Morris called the Great Minds Collection. Richard Resnick, a citizen of Trumbull commissioned the works and gave the collection of 33 artworks to the library to exhibit.

One painting—Onward We March—in the collection depicts several famous women at a rally. Mother Teresa is there, representing the Mission of Charity along with Gloria Steinem, Clara Barton, Susan B. Anthony and others including Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood.

The citizen complained about the juxtaposition of Mother Teresa and Margaret Sanger. Their argument was the Mother Teresa would never march with the likes of Sanger. It was offensive. The Missionaries of Charity, an organization founded by Mother Teresa, said the painting had to be removed because they had intellectual property rights of the image of Saint Teresa. The Library Board of Trustees who stood firm and maintained the painting remain. They noted the library’s support of free expression and diversity of opinion. They also noted that a copyright infringement claim seemed dubious. Was this just an excuse for removing the painting?

Enter the attorneys, religious leaders, ACLU and First Selectman Tim Herbst who represents the district in the state legislature. Herbst, with political ambitions, struggled with a decision he thought was his to make. (The Library Board of Trustees thought it was their decision). Despite the bogus copyright claims, the story about potential liability for the city was a convenient excuse to remove the painting from the library.

Against the decision by the Library Board of Trustees to keep the painting on display, Herbst removed the painting from the exhibit saying: “After learning that the Trumbull Library Board did not have the properly written indemnification for the display of privately owned artwork in the town’s library, and also being alerted to allegations of copyright infringement and unlawful use of Mother Teresa’s image, upon the advice of legal counsel, I can see no other respectful and responsible alternative than to temporarily suspend the display until the proper agreements and legal assurances.”

Less than a week later, the painting was back up after Richard Resnick, against the advice of his attorney, signed a document that he would take responsibility if the library or city was sued.

Herbst announced his decision to replace the painting at a town library meeting. While giving his remarks, there was a loud commotion in the library room next door. When people ran to look at what was happening, they saw a woman defaced the painting, using a back marker to cross out the face of Margaret Sanger. The woman fled the scene. Police were called and people were questioned, but the culprit was never found. Those at the meeting agreed, that in spite of their differences of opinion, none of them wanted the painting vandalized.

Since then, the library has tried to put the situation behind them. The Great Minds Collection is still being exhibited alongside the Onward We March painting restored. Robin Morris’s art has gained widespread recognition in popularity. Images of her work on cups, posters, shirts and shopping bags are now available.

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Carrie Russell

Carrie Russell is the director of the Program on Public Access to Information in the Washington Office. Her portfolio includes copyright, international copyright, accessibility, e-books, and other public policy issues. She has an MLIS from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and an MA in media arts from the University of Arizona.

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