|Volume 56 Number 2
Handling Intellectual Freedom Challenges
from a State Legislator
Auburn University, Auburn, AL
Presented as part of the program "Facing Intellectual Freedom Challenges in your Library: Are you Ready?"
Conference Abstract: Panelists will discuss intellectual freedom challenges faced by libraries in recent years and successful strategies used to defuse such challenges. The presentations will be based on actual, not hypothetical, events, and will focus mostly on challenges arising from sexual, social, and political controversies. Questions from the audience will be welcome.
In December 2004, Representative Gerald Allen prefiled a bill in the Alabama House of Representatives that would prohibit the expenditure of “public funds… by any state agency or public entities for the purchase, production, or promotion of printed or electronic materials or activities that sanction, recognize, foster, or promote a lifestyle or actions prohibited by the sodomy and sexual misconduct laws of the state.” A public employee (such as a librarian) convicted of such an expenditure would be guilty of committing a Class A misdemeanor and thus could be sentenced up to one year in jail. This was definitely a challenge to intellectual freedom, and as the then-President of the Alabama Library Association, I was obligated to act. The purpose of this presentation is to provide a brief summary of actions taken to meet this challenge and to provide some practical recommendations for dealing with similar challenges faced by others in the future.
With the February 1, 2005, deadline looming for the start of the Alabama Legislature’s regular session and statewide publicity concerning Mr. Allen’s bill already appearing, it was imperative for the Alabama Library Association Executive Council to respond as quickly as possible. Thanks to e-mail and fax communications, I was able to reach an agreement with the Executive Council quickly, and we decided on a course of action. On January 7, the final product was ready for publicity and distribution: “Resolution of the Alabama Library Association Opposing a Bill to Prohibit the Use of Public Funds for Activities or Published Materials Related to Homosexuality.” Due mainly to logistical constraints, only the Association President and ALA Councilor’s handwritten signatures appeared on the document along with the names and titles of eight other Executive Council members willing to be listed as supporters of the resolution. A few Executive Council members who worked for vulnerable institutions dependent on public funds expressed their support verbally but were not willing to be listed by name on the document for fear of retaliation by Representative Allen and his allies.
I distributed original signed copies of the resolution to Representative Allen plus two other legislators and encouraged all Executive Council members to do the same in regard to their own state legislators. The next step was to more widely publicize the resolution and to seek the support of the Alabama Library Association membership. This was accomplished by mounting a PDF copy on the Association’s web site and notifying the membership via our online monthly newsletter, plus by repeatedly asking the membership via the Association’s e-mail listserv to contact their state legislators and to distribute copies of the resolution far and wide.
I expected to be summoned to appear before Mr. Allen in the State House and prepared accordingly, but, to my relief, the summons never came. Meanwhile, a growing chorus of criticism of the Allen Bill appeared in state, regional, and even national media, and ultimately the bill died in the Alabama House of Representatives. It would be presumptuous to assume that the Alabama Library Association’s resolution alone killed the bill, but it is likely that it helped do so.
Once the resolution was distributed, I received a fair number of inquiries from interested parties asking either my opinion of the Allen Bill or for more detailed information about the bill. One e-mail inquiry even came from Australia.
While I never had to face debating Gerald Allen in the State House, I did get an invitation to appear on MSNBC’s “Coast to Coast” program hosted by Ron Reagan in April 2005 to discuss the Allen Bill. “Coast to Coast” sent a limousine (actually a sport utility vehicle) to drive me to Montgomery for the interview. Shortly after the trip started, the driver received a call on his cellular telephone and he told me the interview was cancelled because Representative Allen had cancelled. This was the first I knew that the nationally televised interview involved actually facing the sponsor of this bill. I was both disappointed and relieved when this was made known to me.
This challenge to intellectual freedom in the state of Alabama had a positive outcome. However, it is likely that similar challenges will take place in the future, both in Alabama and elsewhere, so I would like to supply a list of dos and don’ts below as lessons learned from this particular episode.
When alerted to the situation, get the facts before taking action. Avoid impulsive, emotional public actions.
Take appropriate action but be sure to have everyone on board. Give doubters or those fearful of retaliation a way out of having to publicly identify themselves with opposition to the challenge.
Take advantage of modern forms of communication (e-mail, fax, scanning, etc.) to craft an appropriate response as soon as possible, especially if it is a written response such as the resolution mentioned above.
For those persons willing to be publicly identified, take advantage of official titles and affiliations for maximum clout. My signature as President of the Alabama Library Association was much more effective than mine as a private individual or even as a regular librarian.
Disseminate your response (such as a resolution) as widely as possible. Try to hand-deliver copies to elected officials or at least to their office staff when possible. Take advantage of modern forms of communication to disseminate your response to others.
Be prepared to deal with the media. Beware of potential distortions that can be made by “sound bites.” You should be as accurate but succinct as possible.
Be respectful but firm in opposition. Even though I strongly disagreed with Mr. Allen’s perspective, I was prepared to be civil and respectful in a debate. Personal attacks and condescension are inappropriate, especially in a public debate.
Keep others informed of actions taken.
- Attack the challenger in a personal way or dismiss his or her viewpoint. This will only enrage the challenger and his/her supporters and make you look bad, especially in a public debate.
- Assume everyone sympathetic to the cause will want to be publicly identified. Libraries are vulnerable to financial retaliation and sometimes it’s necessary for employees to remain silent or discrete even if they agree with your response to intellectual freedom challenges.
- Patronize or condescend the challenger or his/her supporters. You can definitely oppose them but don’t be shrill. Be dignified, polite, and firm.
- Act without carefully compiling the facts. Rely on accurate, verifiable information rather than rumor or emotion.
- Do anything in secret. Always keep your supporters or organization informed about actions taken.