Photo courtesy of Piotrus, Creative Commons
The lecture hall at Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, Main Branch
In April, controversy ensued following an online scuffle between local comedian Day Bracey and far-right comedian Owen Benjamin
. The New Hazlett Theater canceled Benjamin’s show after discovering his history of racist and homophobic comments on social media. Bracey, who is African American, reacted by saying other venues shouldn't work with Benjamin.
But, on April 28, Benjamin secured a venue and performed a comedy show. He rented out the lecture hall at the Main Branch of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, in Oakland. According to Carnegie Library spokesperson Suzanne Thinnes, Benjamin rented out the space as a private event, and the library didn’t promote or market the show, nor does the library promote or market any private event. Tickets were sold through Benjamin’s website, and the location of the event was only shared after tickets were purchased.
Some Pittsburgh residents, including Bracey
, were upset Benjamin was allowed to perform at the library lecture hall, which is located near the Schenley Park Bridge. Bracey says he wished the library would have denied Benjamin’s request to rent out the facility, especially given the optics of the situation. He says that hosting Benjamin — who uses the n-word often on social media, near where the Stephen Foster statue
was removed just two days before the show — comes off as insensitive.
But above all, Bracey is upset the public was not given accurate information about Benjamin’s show. He says he called the library and was told that either the show wasn't happening or it was occurring at a different location. Bracey understands that the First Amendment protects Benjamin in renting out a public space, but he wishes that people had the opportunity to protest Benjamin’s show.
“A protest is also a form a free speech,” says Bracey. “Why didn't you allow the public to exert their First Amendment right? I do understand that you want to allow all voices, but then allow all voices. You are giving preference to [Benjamin] by not informing us about his show.”
Thinnes says that library officials learned about the controversy surrounding Benjamin partway through the rental agreement process, less than two weeks ago. She says it was a difficult decision, but the library decided to accept the rental agreement, in accordance with the American Library Association
“It was something we grappled with; what is public and how to rent out public space,” says Thinnes. “A good library supports freedom from censorship and freedom of expression. Those are our core guidelines.”
In terms of library staff misinforming people looking to protest Benjamin’s show, Thinnes says some confusion may have occurred since the staff that fields calls was not informed who Benjamin was and that he was performing at the lecture hall. She says some confusion about the event may have stemmed from Carnegie Museums possibly getting calls about Benjamin. The museums are located next to the library, but has no affiliation with the library. Thinnes apologizes that library administrators didn’t inform library staff and the public more about Benjamin’s show. She doesn’t want the fallout from Benjamin’s show to lead patrons to have negative opinions of the library staff that fielded inquiries.
“It is very important to note that we disappointed our staff and the public by not having that information for them,” she says. “I don’t want this to overshadow the great work that our staff does. We want to encourage the community to continue this public debate.”
North Side resident Lee Stanley was critical of how the library officials handled the Benjamin show, and hopes the library will increase its transparency moving forward. “If the library is going to use free speech as their hill, then they need to be open and honest about it,” wrote Stanley in a message to City Paper
In response to the event, Thinnes says library officials will be discussing possibly altering their rental policies. “It is a difficult conversation for us to have, but it brought some things out into the light that will help our organization moving forward," says Thinnes. "And we now have an opportunity to look at rental policies and procedures.”