Intellectual Freedom: Where Do We Draw the Line?
By: Andrea Jamison
In order to maintain a democratic society, “free and open” access to information is needed. The American Library Association defines Intellectual freedom as “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.” Inclusive of this, is the right for people to have the option to explore ideas that aren’t necessarily popular.
One of the ongoing debates surrounding information freedom centers on the need to establish boundaries. For some, banning certain information is a means of protecting vulnerable populations from abusive or offensive content. To others, it is a matter of control. Tom Clancy once wrote, “The control of information is something the elite always does, particularly in a despotic form of government. Information, knowledge, is power. If you can control information, you can control people.” Having two very rational, yet opposing views on the matter makes weighing in on the issue somewhat baffling. Yet, the role of libraries is clear. Libraries should always seek to “protect and promote” the rights afforded under this freedom.
In the past, some libraries have struggled to maintain this creed. Pushback from community members and those who believe some materials to be racially offensive, derogatory, and inappropriate for youth make the fight for intellectual freedom more cumbersome. When making the decision to ban or censor books, libraries have to be cognizant of two very important factors. To begin, the lines between what is considered inappropriate are not always congruent. People have different values that impact their thoughts on what is considered offensive. Secondly, materials that might be considered objectionable to some may still have educational value to others. In cases where objections to materials are based on the notion that the materials may be inappropriate for youth, libraries shouldn’t take a “one size fits all” approach. Some youth may be mature enough to handle certain content.
As an example and in response to whether or not libraries should ban books for youth, one teenager anonymously responded:
“You have no right to take away valuable reading material from other students who simply want to learn from these stories and take away knowledge about the world as it is now or how it once was in the past. All the violent or challenged things in this world will come to light for everyone and pretending they are not there or trying to erase them instead of embracing them and learning from them to look forward for a better future is not the answer. Our opinions shape our actions. Some of the greatest people on this earth have looked at their environment and formed their own opinions against society. To be our OWN individual people, we must expose ourselves to these things and think for ourselves. We must face the things that scare us and instead of hiding from them rising up to defeat them. This is what I believe.”
Therefore, to avoid the quandaries of censorship, libraries should always have clear selection policies and guidelines. These policies should ensure fairness and promote equity among a range of ideas. The National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) advocates for strong selection guidelines as a way of minimizing the need to censor. The coalition argues that “the goal of censorship is to remove, eliminate or bar particular materials and methods, the goal of professional guidelines is to provide criteria for selection of materials and methods.”
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.
You say that we should promote equity in a range of ideas. A call to open-mindedness. Good. But let us not be so open-minded that our brains fall out. For example, there are any number of publications that promote the idea that the Jewish Holocaust never happened. This is not only a patently false claim, but grossly anti-Semitic and such material ought to have no place in any library. Another example is the proliferation of anti-vaccination material that appeared in the wake of the discredited study on the non-existent connection between the MMR vaccine and autism. I was dismayed to find such material, so dangerous to child health, in my library and would have kept it out had I had the power to do so. I know such material would get into people’s hands anyway, but the public library ought not to facilitate that.
Holocaust denial is a serious problem, as is opposition to vaccination. No argument there. Who in the library makes the decision as to what material “ought to have no place” in the library? Is it possible to craft clear, simple guidelines to tell libraries what topics are beyond the pale? What if a researcher is doing a project on Holocaust denial? Do we deny them access to the very stuff they need to learn about, and potentially teach others about, this topic? Is someone recommending that the ALA/OIF revise the current policy – amend the Library Bill of Rights? I am serious – if there is a move afoot to weaken this document?