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Rainbow Storytime: Rotorua Lakes Council reviews cancellation decision

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Rotorua Library cancelled the Rainbow Storytime event in April because of safety concerns. Photos / Andrew Warner, 123RF

“Online abuse and threats” to attendees – “including children” – of a drag queen storytime event in Rotorua were among the reasons it was canned, a council review says.

Rotorua Library was set to host Rainbow Storytime on March 21 but called it off the day before due to “safety concerns” as a protest and counter-protest were organised amid what the Rotorua Lakes Council described as “hostile dialogue” and “rapid spread of misinformation”.

At the time it said registrations were full for the family-focused event themed around acceptance, anti-bullying, inclusion, being kind and having confidence in yourself.

The council was criticised by free speech advocates for the cancellation but prominent protest figure Destiny Church leader Brian Tamaki, who had pledged to shut the “inappropriate” event down, said calling it off was “common sense”.

The Hastings District Council cancelled its storytime event a few days later. The Gisborne event went ahead with about 350 anti-drag activists and counter-protesters standing outside the library.

Rainbow Storytime host Sunita Torrance – who defended it against critics as “two people dressing up in frilly costumes reading to children” and “absolutely not harmful” – later cancelled her upcoming country-wide tour amid the protests and her co-star choosing to remain overseas.

The Rotorua council’s just-released internal review of its decision to cancel noted the impact was felt nationally.

The report for the community and district development committee meeting was prepared by group manager Jean-Paul Gaston. It said staff recognised “negative behaviour” and protests at other libraries to a minor degree and mitigations had been factored into the event.

The decision to cancel came as the risk profile escalated: “There was inadequate time and resources to address the key identified ‘safety’ risks”.

Among these were “online abuse and threats to staff, storytellers and attendees (including children)”, the report claimed.

It also said protesters did not respond or engage, including when staff and police sought agreement they would be peaceful and non-threatening to the children and whānau attending the event.

It also held concerns over a planned counter-protest.

Tensions were high outside the Gisborne Library.
Tensions were high outside the Gisborne Library.

The council said the event could have been moved to a “secure, managed space” in the library but the ease of public access to and inside the building, which also hosts the Children’s Health Hub, made it hard to “protect” other customers.

The report said it could not “secure additional police support during the event” and had limited security support due to other events at the same time.

It added that the purpose and focus of New Zealand libraries was clear and related to international good practice, referring to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation and International Federation of Library Associations public library manifesto 2022.

Rotorua Lakes Council community and district development group manager Jean-Paul Gaston prepared the review. Photo / Laura Smith
Rotorua Lakes Council community and district development group manager Jean-Paul Gaston prepared the review. Photo / Laura Smith

Legislation including the Bill of Rights Act, Human Rights Act and Health and Safety Act detailed the council’s responsibility to manage safety during events.

The report said the council’s learnings included connecting with Rotorua Chamber of Pride and other Rainbow organisations to understand whether, “as a result of this controversy, they feel any different about the library and how can we ensure they feel welcome”, given 4.4 per cent of the community identified as LGBTI.

Staff also attended a Public Libraries of New Zealand webinar and were invited to review the Freedom-to-Read toolkit developed by the Library and Information Association of New Zealand Aotearoa.

It would also develop a new venue booking and management policy for the library that aligned with its core operational responsibilities.

“It is also important we reflect on ‘potential’ safety risks in preparing for events, recognising that the design of the building and the need to maintain public access makes it more difficult to ‘secure’ events. We are currently developing a venue management policy.”

Both Public Libraries New Zealand and Library and Information Association of New Zealand Aotearoa were also reviewing good practice or best practice guidance, and the council would make policy changes based on its learnings.

Torrance and Tamaki were approached for comment.

Laura Smith is a Local Democracy Reporting journalist based at the Rotorua Daily Post. She previously reported general news for the Otago Daily Times and Southland Express, and has been a journalist for four years.

– LDR is local body journalism co-funded by RNZ and NZ On Air.

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