Two days on the job, followed by 6 days at midwinter, marked my introduction to the Office for Intellectual Freedom. I’m definitely in learning mode.
As a long time public library director, I was familiar with many of the challenges in that realm. But my main takeaway from midwinter conversations with my colleagues is that today’s intellectual freedom hot spot is clearly our public schools.
There seem to be three factors at work:
1. A plague of overfiltering. That is, internet filters are installed with every conceivable switch thrown. I spoke with one school librarian who said that even subscription databases such as SIRS Issues are blocked. At that school, the debate team can’t use library resources even to research assigned topics. It isn’t librarians making the decisions about which switches to flip; it’s IT staff, whose concerns are not access, and not even compliance with CIPA. That’s a problem.
2. The continuing loss of school librarians. In far too many schools, librarians have been replaced with media tech people, with volunteers, or with no one.
3. A steady encroachment on the free speech rights of youth. One of the Office of Intellectual Freedom’s featured speakers was the astute and insightful Catherine Ross, author of the recent “Lessons in Censorship: How Schools and Courts Subvert Students’ First Amendment Rights.” While we may wish an end to bullying, some schools have adopted speech codes that are clear violations of student’s free speech rights. (Yes, students have them, too.) But locating and addressing these violations is expensive and awkward.
It is ironic that on the one hand, we have school authorities saying that students need to develop critical thinking skills, while at the same time depriving them of the resources and rights through which such thinking is developed.
I was also intrigued by talk about “mature minds” — the recognition that not every “child” is the same. Somewhere between learning to read (age 4-6) and getting to vote (age 18) we have to develop the independence of thought and judgment to exercise our rights as citizens. That requires exploring and testing, trying on different views to see how they look from the inside.
In the months to come I’ll be looking for ways to direct OIF resources to try to highlight these concerns, and encourage greater respect for the minds and voices of our next generation.
Jamie LaRue is the director for ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. Connect with him @jaslar on Twitter.