Aurora Public Library Poem Controversy: A Matter of Free Speech or Common Sense?
The Aurora Public Library became the subject of intense scrutiny resulting from a decision to publicly display a controversial poem. The poem in question, “Hijab Means Jihad,” was part of a three-week display featuring 20 different panels of artistry. Words from the poem, which were superimposed over a picture of a Confederate flag, seemed to condone (or perhaps even suggest) violence against Muslim women. However, that was not the author’s intent. Author George Miller, a professor at Lewis University, originally intended for the poem to be satirical in nature. According to Miller, the piece was intended to highlight the attitudes and injustices towards Muslims. Unfortunately, instead of shining a light on these types of injustices, Miller’s work became an example of the abhorrent behavior he was attempting to shun. No surprises here, as satires do have the propensity to elicit mixed emotions, which can lead to dangerous reactions. Think Charlie Hebdo.
The library received a substantial amount of backlash for the display which culminated in the resignation of the library’s communications manager, Amy Roth. Roth admitted that she initially thought the piece was offensive but after rereading it – felt that she “had to stand up for Miller’s rights to say what he wanted, as his words were not causing any imminent danger.” In contradiction to Roth’s beliefs, The Chicago office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-Chicago), the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy group, believed the poem to be blatantly offensive. In a statement, the group confirmed their opinion “that the display itself was presented at face-value without any such context thus working to shock and threaten viewers, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, at a time in which anti-Muslim and anti-Hijabanimosity is a serious problem.”
Other community leaders, including Mayor Richard C. Irvin, also voiced opposition to the display. In response to community outrage, the library removed the display and issued the following statement, as a public apology, from the Library’s Executive Director, Daisy Porter-Reynolds:
“On behalf of my board, my staff, and myself, I offer my heartfelt apology to the Muslim community for the hurt caused by our art exhibit. I’m changing our procedures so that exhibit and display decisions will be vetted carefully by a team of staff and board members. We plan to host cultural sensitivity training for our staff in cooperation with a number of agencies including CAIR-Chicago. Looking ahead, we will also engage the community with a series of programs on race and religion in Aurora and America. I have taken feedback from the community on how we can best go about this. I intend for every one of all religions and races to feel safe and welcome at Aurora Public Library.”
The library board also called for closer monitoring of policies and how library displays are vetted. Although the library is taking steps to repair the damage, there is still a rift in the community. At issue is the ongoing debate between censorship and free speech, a topic central to the work of libraries. On one hand, you have “free speech” advocates who routinely stand against any form of censorship in much the same way that Roth advocated for Miller. On the other hand, there are those who believe that the amount of latitude provided by the First Amendment only opens the door for hate speech. This then begs the question: where exactly do librarians stand with regard to these types of issues?
The short answer to the question is that libraries should always promote freedom. The challenge is to make sure that we support the freedom of all – not just one. I strongly believe that the events that transpired at Aurora Public Library should provide a teachable moment for libraries everywhere: Libraries are not just about serving communities, libraries are also about building them as well.
Andrea Q. Jamison is a professional librarian, writer, and current Ph.D. student whose research involves examining the pervasive lack of diversity in literature. She has over 17 years of experience working in schools and libraries, and she is the author of two books: Against the Waterfalls and Super Sonja. In addition to her full-time duties in librarianship, she is a mom, Board Member for ALA’s Ethnic & Multicultural Information Exchange Roundtable, Chair for the EMIERT Multicultural Awards, reviewer for the School Library Journal, reviewer for Indieview, freelance writer, avid blogger, and social justice advocate. She also works with the Illinois School Library Media Association as a member of their advocacy and conference planning committees. Andrea thoroughly enjoys working with children and speaks nationally on issues related to creating diverse and inclusive learning spaces for youth. Find her on Twitter @achitownj.