Balancing Free Speech and Social Justice to Secure the Future of Intellectual Freedom

Academic Freedom, General Interest, Intellectual Freedom Committee, Midwinter Meeting/Annual Conference, Social Justice

Katie Chamberlain Kritikos

This blog post has been adapted from remarks presented at Taking the Cake: A Generational Talkback, Intellectual Freedom Committee-American Association of Publishers Program, American Library Association Annual Conference, Orlando, Florida, June 27, 2016.

Katie Chamberlain Kritikos is a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee School of Information Studies.  An attorney with experience as a solo practitioner and tax litigator, she researches the intersection of law and policy with a focus on libraries, intellectual freedom, and intellectual property.  Email:

Introduction: Intellectual Freedom and Censorship

Free expression forms the foundation of our professions, whether librarian, publisher, advocate, or scholar.  Today, I will talk about the future of intellectual freedom, which the ALA defines as, “the right of every individual to both seek and receive information from all points of view without restriction”.  This idea comes from the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, which states that, “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech”.

Despite the efforts of the American Library Association (ALA), the American Association of Publishers (AAP), and other policymakers, however, book challenges continue to threaten intellectual freedom.  For example, over eighty young-adult books with lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender subject matter were challenged over a six-month period in 2009 in Wisconsin alone.  On a national scale, the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom reported 275 formal book challenges in 2015.  Such challenges effect not just the freedom to read, but free and democratic society.

The impetus for this talkback was the controversy surrounding the publication in January of this year of a children’s book called A Birthday Cake for George Washington.  Because critics instantly condemned the book for its depiction of smiling slaves, publisher Scholastic Press withdrew the book and halted its distribution.

This withdrawal encapsulates the shifting social context of intellectual freedom in the United States.  Traditionally, free speech advocates decry any attempt to suppress expression.  A growing emphasis on social justice creates tension between the foundation and the future of intellectual freedom.  This post considers the recent controversies over children’s books, trigger warnings, and free speech online to explore this crossroads of information policy.

New Kinds of Book Challenges: A Birthday Cake for George Washington

A Birthday Cake for George Washington
A Birthday Cake for George Washington

The Birthday Cake for George Washington dispute exemplifies a new kind of liberal censorship that targets material viewed as discriminatory or derogatory.  The book, written, illustrated, and edited by women of color, tells the story of slaves baking a birthday cake for the first U.S. president.  Narrator Delia describes how her father, Hercules, Washington’s enslaved chef, bakes a cake despite the unanticipated lack of sugar in the larder.

After severe backlash, Scholastic withdrew the book, stating in a blog post: “Scholastic has a long history of explaining complex and controversial issues to children at all ages and grade levels.  We do not believe this title meets the standards of appropriate presentation of information to younger children, despite the positive intentions and beliefs of the author, editor, and illustrator”.

This outcome signifies how effective the trend towards elevating social justice over free speech can be.  Writing for the Kirkus Review, children and teen editor Vicky Smith laments how A Birthday Cake for George Washington “depicts smiling slaves on nearly every page”.  Despite the book’s primary focus on making a cake, Smith maintains that, and I quote, “it’s an incomplete, even dishonest treatment of slavery”.  How could slaves smile while working?  And how could the author knowingly omit crucial historical details, such as Hercules’ eventual escape and abandonment of his daughter to slavery?

Nonetheless, free speech advocates view the withdrawal of A Birthday Cake for George Washington as censorship.  As editor Andrea Davis Pinkney wrote on the Children’s Book Council Diversity blog, “… [W]e have a tremendous responsibility to present history with the utmost accuracy and care . . . . author Ramin Ganeshram . . . spent years researching the life and times of George Washington’s enslaved chef, Hercules to craft her book . . . .  And, with this responsibility in mind, acclaimed artist Vanessa Newton made the deliberate choice to depict slaves as beautiful people who possessed great dignity, . . . and who smiled about their achievements in the face of slavery’s degrading evils”.

The National Coalition Against Censorship also expressed concern “whether censorship, even when it is self-censorship, is ever a ‘win’”.  While reserving opinion on the book’s historical accuracy, the controversy allows us to ask a big-picture question about what a publisher’s self-censorship means for a profession dedicated to equity, diversity, and inclusion.  The NCAC finds that, and I quote, “the end result – removal of the book – is troubling, as the reader’s opportunity to read and evaluate the text is eliminated”.  Indeed, any form of censorship chills free speech, and “[p]ulling books out of circulation simply because they cause controversy is the wrong decision”.

Trigger Warnings and the Demise of Academic Freedom

Like book challenges, trigger warnings contribute to the shifting social context of intellectual freedom by elevating social justice over free speech.  A September 2015 article in The Atlantic defines trigger warnings as, “alerts that professors are expected to issue if something in a course might cause a strong emotional response”.  Students have requested warnings about, for example, Chinua Achebe’s memoir Things Fall Apart because it “describes racial violence” and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby because it “portrays misogyny and physical abuse”.

These warnings amount to spoiler alerts at best and censorship at worst, and can chill free speech.  Traditionally, higher education is the bastion of free expression and the exchange ideas and opinions.  Academic freedom protects this pursuit of knowledge, which can involve exposure to ideas with which one disagrees.

But disagreement does not create a right not to be offended.  Two weeks ago, The Economist addressed this phenomenon, stating that, and I quote, “university is a place where students are supposed to learn how to think.  That mission is impossible if uncomfortable ideas are off-limits”.

Free Speech on the Internet: Right to Be Forgotten and Hate Speech

Free speech certainly enables uncomfortable ideas to exist online, often forever because “the Internet records everything and forgets nothing”.  The right to be forgotten is a modern answer to removing unwanted, outdated, or irrelevant personal information from the Internet.  Based on European concepts of personal privacy and sanctified by a 2014 Court of European Justice decision, the right to be forgotten allows someone to request a search engine to delist, or remove, personal information from search results.

In the United States, critics refer to this delisting as “rewriting history” and “censorship”.  In 2012, law professor Jeffrey Rosen predicted that the right to be forgotten is, and I quote, “the biggest threat to free speech on the Internet in the coming decade” (Rosen, 2012, p. 88).  Is there a legitimate expectation of privacy online?  Or does delisting violate a website’s free speech?

Concern about revenge pornography creates a viable argument for at least a qualified right to be forgotten (Arthur, 2014).  In June 2015, Google agreed to start delisting revenge pornography that appears in search results for a person’s name at that person’s request.

The regulation of hate speech also demonstrates the shifting social context of intellectual freedom towards a right not to be offended.  Again, Europe leads the charge in elevating social justice over free speech.  A brand-new European Commission agreement allows four major U.S. companies – Facebook, Google, Twitter, and Microsoft – to block “illegal hate speech” and their users to report offensive images or speech.  Among its many critics is the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which stated that this vague, over-broad deal will chill speech online.

Conclusion: Preserving Intellectual Freedom

So . . .  What do we do?  How do we balance the old with the new, the traditional with the progressive?  How do we unite the future of intellectual freedom with its foundation?

There is no simple answer to these complex legal and social questions.  As advocates of equity, diversity, and inclusion, we must remember that free speech is an essential component of social change.  To paraphrase Charles Brownstein, the Executive Director of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, free speech and social justice are allies, not enemies.

Progress depends on the free exchange of ideas, access to information, and the opportunity to decide for ourselves.  Progress stops when we remove certain materials because they are offensive, unorthodox, or otherwise upsetting.  Thus, we must not use social justice as a weapon against free speech.  Rather, we must preserve First Amendment values in libraries, publishing, advocacy, and scholarship.  Censorship is never the appropriate reaction to controversy.

To quote former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis: “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence” (Whitney v. California, 1927).  Information policy may be at a crossroads, but we are also at the threshold of a new opportunity.  The conversation about the future of intellectual freedom starts right here, right now.

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