First They Come for the Poets

Artwork & Illustrations, Censorship, Displays, General Interest

By: James LaRue, director of OIF

Aurora Public Library Facebook Hijab Means Jihad
Aurora Public Library Facebook Page

The recent incident in Aurora, Ill., in which a self-described satirical poem by poet George Miller was removed from the library, is troubling for many reasons.

The poem — titled “Hijab Means Jihad” — was superimposed over an image of the Confederate flag and begins with the sentence “Every kid should be like my kid and snatch a hijab.”

The first trouble is that there really are anti-Islamic and misogynistic sentiments in the world. It’s to the credit of the Aurora community that many within it want to make a strong statement against bigotry, and in favor of a more welcoming and inclusive environment. But the art itself neither creates bigotry, nor endorses it. Immediately adjacent to the piece (part of a larger exhibit called Placeholders: Photo-Poems) was a card saying that the piece was satire. So even though a spokesperson for the Chicago office of the Council on Islamic-American Relations said the poem “lacked context,” it’s hard to imagine a clearer description of the intent. To be clear: Authors are not required to label their satire. This one did.

More troubling is the apparent lack of a complaint or reconsideration process. According to news reports, the library board president, John Savage, instructed staff to take down the poem. Staff contacted the author, who dismantled the entire exhibit. He has yet to comment on it publicly. No official complaint was filed, although the exhibit had been up for three weeks. There was no independent review.

Savage said, “When I saw the language, I found it extremely offensive and inappropriate. I have no issue at all about the decision I made. I totally respect the issues of free speech, but there are boundaries, and this crossed the boundary.” Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin weighed in, too, “demanding” that the poem be taken down.

The difficulty here is that Savage’s actions (and Irvin’s) showed a profound disrespect for free speech. The boundaries were not those of the policy or the law. They were his own. In fact, political speech is constitutionally protected speech, as is satire. The peremptory removal of this exhibit contradicts the First Amendment — a worrisome action for any library, or elected, official.

Of equal concern is that board members do not themselves have the authority to instruct library staff to do anything; the governing authority is the entire board. Apparently, however, there was no deliberation by that body. This unilateral action by a single board member violates chain of command and policy.

A concern for social justice is commendable. Yet Miller’s speech clearly was not hate speech; it was deliberately provocative satire. But even if it had been hate speech, the First Amendment still applies. The courts have been consistent that the best response to bad speech of any kind is exposure, vigorous debate, followed by principled and lawful action. Instead, a single board president, and a local mayor, demanded immediate censorship. And got it.

Materials should not be excluded because of the origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation. – Library Bill of Rights 

We uphold the principles of intellectual freedom and resist all efforts to censor library resources. – Code of Ethics.


Finally, it was disturbing that the communication director, Amy Roth, resigned over the incident. Her comments were telling. First she said, as interpreted by the reporter, that she refused to send out a press release that threw the staff under the bus. The exhibit followed library rules. Second, she remarked that the poet’s words “were not causing any imminent danger.”

Roth is correct. The fact that a piece of art stirs up controversy, that requires people to examine their values, is part of the purpose of art. Art isn’t supposed to put you to sleep. It’s supposed to wake you up. Roth understood, in a way that a library board member and mayor did not, that the boundaries of free speech have already been defined by law. The library was well within it.

Now, Savage has indicated some interest in finding out “how the poem was displayed in the first place.” As a one-time poet myself, I’m thrilled to see one of us in the news, stirring up passions and conversation. But silencing a poet, then looking for ways to make sure no one ever got to hear him in the first place, is precisely what censorship looks like. Is it a new dawn in Aurora?


  • “A concern for social justice is commendable. Yet Miller’s speech clearly was not hate speech; it was deliberately provocative satire.”

    I’ve read it. It’s not clear at all. George Miller shot for satire and missed, landing firmly in “reads as sincere hate”. Whether or not it should stay up… honestly I can’t say. But I will absolutely defend people criticizing him for failing to think about how it would read to others and putting it up in the first place.

  • I defend people criticizing him, too – that’s the other side of free speech. But I don’t think a work of satire has to be successful in that aim for every reader. Again, I take him at his word (the placard by the work) that it was NOT hate speech. I didn’t see the rest of the exhibit, but as always, the full context matters. If he met the rules for a library exhibit, and he did, then he should be allowed to show it.

  • Thank you for this! I’m a new citizen of Aurora and saw this exhibit when it was up. Yours is the most thoughtful and well-reasoned piece I’ve read in response to how it was handled. If one walked into the exhibit and went straight to one piece and then left immediately, one could cry foul—and that unfortunately is what seemed to happen too many times. The piece was highly contexted, not only by the explicit statement about satire (which, to quibble, was actually irony), but by the rest of the artist’s work. The responses of the Board President and the Mayor were both misguided and detrimental to productive conversation. They sacrificed a teachable moment. It was disheartening to me on the eve of my moving here to become part of Aurora’s arts community. One of my goals here is to help community members (perhaps especially leaders) continue to gain skills for interacting with and communicating about art—and artists—and each other!

  • Thanks for your comments. As I said, the interest in being a welcoming community is thoroughly commendable. But in the rush to judgment, we can find ourselves creating a new kind of environment with its own problems. Best wishes as you advocate for art and for understanding.

  • I’m the founder of Feminist Librarian and maybe reading up on my posts can help clarify how most librarians REALLY feel. Librarians use selection criteria and typically have a collection management policy to guide them on what to purchase for the library. Librarians are always supposed to have balanced collections including materials with opposing viewpoints – even books with viewpoints they disagree with. Librarians also need to be thoughtful in their choice of displaying art pieces with consideration of what would best for the community. Choosing to not display a hate filled art piece is not at all close to censoring or banning a book. This disgusting poem being on display has nothing to do with limiting freedom of speech. I will copy and paste what I said earlier: “We don’t see this as an intellectual freedom of speech issue. This was an art piece that was completely inappropriate and consisted of extremely discriminatory words that many Muslims in the community, city residents, patrons, and librarians felt were hate speech. Read the comments on the Mayor’s post. The library failed to promptly respond to the comments from upset community members and librarians across the country. They were planning to take it down on Monday as regularly planned even after I showed them screen shots of comments from upset Muslims. The Mayor had to step in to contact the board because the library still, after hundreds of comments from city residents and the library community, were stubborn and initially unwilling to see their wrongdoing.” While the library is a place that supports freedom of speech and also celebrates banned book week, they should not put hate speech on display in the center of the library and then excitedly post about it on social media as a way to draw up conversation at the expense of the marginalized group that it is painfully targeting. Yes this is art, but it is also exemplifying a hate crime in attempt to evoke conversation. Yes, we need to have tough conversations about race, culture, and religion. That is how we can help each other heal and understand. But this approach to starting the conversation has been said to be painful, shameless, and insulting by many of those living in Aurora, including Muslims. Aurora is also a World Refugee community with numerous muslim children and teens who wear hijabs. There is great concern as to how muslim youth would process the totality of this art if they see it upon entering the building. It has potential to be very traumatizing, particularly if taken at face value. If the library was so dead set on displaying this art, appropriate signage could have been posted to provide an introduction to the piece, to clarify the intent and nature of the work. It might be helpful to describe it as provocative, challenging, and mature so that viewers could be informed and prepared. Public libraries strive to create safe and welcoming environments for their community members and the shocking nature of this art has proven to be harmful and wholly inappropriate. As the mayor said, this art should never have seen the light of day. Humor, satire, etc. are also very difficult to pick up on when something isn’t your native language and non native speakers may have potentially seen this and felt subsequently unwelcomed. Our platform to make changes should not be based on a privileged person’s “satire” being shown on display at a public library. With so many other choices of starting a tough conversation about discrimination, I strongly believe that Aurora Public Library could have made better decisions regarding a front and center library display.

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