The topic of intellectual freedom is so much more profound than a glance at the American Library Association’s (ALA) definition might reveal initially. ALA (2016) states: "Intellectual freedom is the right of every individual to both seek and receive information from all points of view without restriction. It provides for free access to all expressions of ideas through which any and all sides of a question, cause or movement may be explored." Has intellectual freedom been around so long that it has become a cliché? Is this freedom taken for granted as a privilege without the inherent responsibility that goes along with it? Is there the implication of tolerance? How has political correctness influenced intellectual freedom and censorship? This article attempts to speak to these issues.
To start us off on the same page, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution “guarantees freedom of expression by prohibiting Congress from restricting the press or the rights of individuals to speak freely [emphasis added]. It also guarantees the right of citizens to assemble peaceably and to petition their government” (Cornell University Law School, n.d., p. 1). If we do not have these rights, then we are censored. If we are censored, are we truly free? It is all connected--the right to access information and the right to speak one’s mind--whether it is in a book, a YouTube video, on a billboard, in a class, on the street corner, behind a podium, and so forth.
Before I became a librarian, I worked at my local public library as head of circulation. We had a fantastic new library with a beautiful display case that ran the length of the foyer wall. Patrons had to walk past it to enter the library. During my time there, we used the display case to celebrate art, culture, education, reading, local history, ideas, movements, and the accomplishments of others. One of my favorite displays contained a copy of the book, Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats, by Michael Cunningham, Craig Marberry, and Maya Angelou. The assistant director of the library sought the help of several African American women in the community and was able to assemble a collection of some of the most beautiful, colorful and charming Sunday hats. Each was vibrant and some were very dramatic. They were fit for royalty! I shall never forget it. Alas, I digress. In any event, reservations for the display space were made months in advance, sometimes by as much as a year or more.
During the latter half of my time at my public library, we hired a new library director. Within a week of the hire, the director asked for the key to the display case and I gave it to her. All of a sudden all the doors to the display case were open and things were literally being thrown in the floor. These items were the personal property of community members responsible for the display. The director picked up and bundled as much as possible in her arms. She carried as much as she could and kicked the rest behind the circulation desk. She dropped pictures, figurines, fabric, and other display items on the floor and yelled, “Get this stuff out of here!” She stomped off without another word. The property was a Right to Life display. This was censorship pure and simple. One may think that the library should not promote controversial ideas. So, we will censor if it might offend? We will censor if someone is likely to disagree with the idea? Is that it? Has political correctness stymied us to a point that no one may voice an opinion? Has political correctness deceived us to the point that we feel compelled to silence ideas and opinions?
Is there no other solution than to tear down a display? How might this situation have been handled more professionally? How might this be addressed more equitably without sending the message that controversial or conservative opinions may not be welcome here? I challenge you to come up with a solution that does not involve censorship. Envision a solution that provides diplomacy, dignity, and kindness. I believe that in promoting intellectual freedom and free speech, we do not have the right to get furious, violent, or to remove the message. Here is my solution: Devote one-third of the display to Right to Life, one-third to adoption, and one-third to Planned Parenthood.
On a personal note, when I was pursuing my MLIS, I vividly remember taking the class that dealt with issues of intellectual freedom and censorship. The class made me confront my personal prejudices and intolerances. I had been intolerant, for I did not want to allow others a different point of view when it came to issues about which I had strong personal beliefs. Discussing concepts of intellectual freedom and censorship compelled me to ask myself, “Do you really believe in the freedoms to which you have given so much lip service over the years?” The topic readings gave me pause to reflect on the issues, to think rather than feel and to plan rather than react. The readings forced me from a place of ignorance to a place of understanding concerning the importance of freedom of speech for everyone. Learning more about this topic prepared me for future attempts to impose censorship upon me and upon my patrons. As a result, I have progressively learned to value all ideas without judgment. I now know that I have a professional duty to protect ideas, to stand up for free speech, and yes, even protect ideas I find despicable. It is an honor to be entrusted with something so priceless. If we allow censorship, all our freedoms are in danger.
Another relevant incident occurred when I was in library school at the University of Southern Mississippi. Before one of our classes, one of the students was angry and spouting off her opinions. She was so upset that students on campus were expressing their anti-abortion beliefs. They were writing slogans on the sidewalk with chalk. She was upset because the university would not instruct them to stop or to erase the messages. Her incessant rant about the “stupid students” and “stupid anti-abortionists” rankled me.
I had to speak up. I told her that millions of brave men and women have died fighting for the unequaled freedoms we enjoy in this country. One opinion does not take precedence over another. One opinion is not more valuable or more “right” than another. There is nothing wrong with disagreeing with those students. However, to what sort of an agenda do we adhere if we censor or attempt to censor the ideas of others? What sort of narcissistic numbness are we indulging in by attempting to relegate the ideas or beliefs of others to a level of ignorance by calling them stupid? Can we not disagree without hatred and without malice?
Over a year ago, Roxane Salonen (2015) wrote in her column, “Living Faith,” about an Indiana pizzeria that closed due to threats of violence and death. The closure occurred after the owners refused to cater a gay wedding. Owners of the pizzeria stated that they would serve gays in the restaurant but could not, on principle, cater a gay wedding. Solanen went on to tell about Courtney Hoffman, who sent kind words of encouragement and a donation of $20 to help the family rebuild the business. The amazing point is that Ms. Hoffman is gay. When questioned about her gesture of support, Ms. Hoffman stated that while her opinion differs, she supports the owners' right to run their business based upon their principles. Hoffman shared that she and her girlfriend own and operate a business, and they see a difference between opening the doors to the public for daily business and associating a business’ name to a private event. Hoffman declared, “I just think there's a lot of room for differences…if we can remember that differences don't equal maliciousness…maybe we can move beyond threats of violence and have open discussions of the things that we don't agree on" (as quoted in Salonen, April 25, 2015). Does Ms. Hoffman not epitomize the principles of intellectual freedom, First Amendment rights, and tolerance?
Concerning the correlation between intellectual freedom and censorship, ALA (2016) asserts:
In expressing their opinions and concerns, would-be censors are exercising the same rights librarians seek to protect when they confront censorship. In making their criticisms known, people who object to certain ideas are exercising the same rights…Their rights to voice opinions and try to persuade others to adopt those opinions is protected only if the rights of persons to express ideas they despise are also protected.
I think it behooves every librarian to reread these ALA tenets on intellectual freedom and censorship and to reflect more deeply on the truths they embody.
Associate Justice Clarence Thomas (2016) states that, at this point in history, we “have gone mad with political correctness” (p. 4). He goes on to state:
Today there is much more focus on our rights and on what we are owed, and much less on our obligations and duties…My grandfather often reminded us that if we didn’t work, we didn’t eat, and that if we didn’t plant, we couldn’t harvest. There is always a relationship between responsibilities and benefits…if we continue to consume the benefits of a free society without replenishing or nourishing that society, we will eventually deplete that as well. If we are content to let others do the work of replenishing and defending liberty while we consume the benefits, we will someday run out of other people’s willingness to sacrifice—or even out of courageous people willing to make the sacrifice… (p. 5).
Justice Thomas (2016) went on to clarify that one’s efforts to be a good citizen and live well, and to adhere to the golden rule, “will help to form the fabric of a civil society and a free and prosperous nation where inherent equality and liberty are inviolable” (p. 5).
At the conclusion of the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin was asked about its accomplishments. He stated, “[We have created] a republic, if you can keep it" (as cited in Thomas, p. 3). There are threats to freedom of speech on every front. What are you doing to ensure that we persist as a republic? What are you doing, in your world, to ensure that voices and ideas are not silenced because: they are controversial, they are not politically correct or they are ideas with which you disagree? ALA states (2016) “The rights of both sides must be protected, or neither will survive." What will you do?
American Library Association (ALA). (2016). Intellectual freedom and censorship Q&A. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/advocacy/intfreedom/censorshipfirstamendmentissues/ifcensorshipqanda
Cornell University Law School. (n.d.). First amendment. Retrieved from https://www.law.cornell.edu/constitution/first_amendment
Salonen, R. B. (2015, April 25). Living faith: Gay woman’s donation to pizzeria a lesson in how we can begin to see each other better. INFORUM. Retrieved from http://www.inforum.com/variety/columns/3730335-living-faith-gay-womans-donation-pizzeria-lesson-how-we-can-begin-see-each
Thomas, C. (2016). Freedom and obligation: 2016 commencement address. Imprimis, 45(5/6). Retrieved from https://imprimis.hillsdale.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/Imprimis-May-June-2016.pdf