LHRT statement on “Speaking About ‘The Speaker'” co-sponsorship

Censorship, Intellectual Freedom Committee, Midwinter Meeting/Annual Conference, Office for Intellectual Freedom

In response to some questions about the upcoming “Speaking About The Speaker at the 2014 ALA Annual Conference, the Library History Round Table Executive Committee has made this statement about their decision to co-sponsor the program:

LHRT Executive Committee Statement re. OIF The Speaker Conference Program

The Library History Round Table (LHRT)’s decision to co-sponsor the Office of Intellectual Freedom (OIF)’s conference program on The Speaker has met with consternation from some members of ALA Council and the Social Responsibility Round Table (SRRT). Since no one from Council or SRRT has contacted LHRT officers to discuss their concerns, the LHRT Executive Committee has authorized OIF to publish this statement on its blog, which all concerned parties may access.

Today, ALA positions itself as a champion of civil liberties and diversity. For example, in the past decade Council has passed resolutions in support of immigrant rights (Midwinter 2007), same-sex marriage (Annual 2009), and universal health care (Annual 2009). Yet the association and some of its leaders were not always at the forefront of human rights advocacy. Decades of tortuous debate were sometimes required in order for ALA to evolve toward the ideals that seem so natural to us now. Nowhere is this truer than in the cases of intellectual freedom and race relations.

The Speaker and the controversy it caused are nearly forty years old. Yet we face some of the same issues today. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there are nearly one thousand hate groups operating in the United States. They request meeting rooms in libraries and other public spaces, including a Ku Klux Klan rally planned last year at Gettysburg National Military Park.  The intended purpose of The Speaker was to invite librarians to examine the limits of their own commitment to intellectual freedom. Such an exercise remains worthwhile.

More importantly, LHRT is concerned that the rising generation of librarians has little inkling of the struggle of African Americans and other persons of color to be welcomed, heard, and respected with our profession. For example, many are unaware of Melvil Dewey’s anti-Semitism; ALA’s acquiescence to “local custom” when holding conferences in segregated cities; and yes, the fierce debate between the Intellectual Freedom Committee and the Black Caucus regarding the production and screening of The Speaker. In criticizing the program, one Council member stated that there is no point to showing a film which “so few of the current members of ALA were even involved with.” LHRT’s position is just the opposite–that we must expose and educate members about these matters precisely because many of today’s librarians have no knowledge of them. LHRT respects colleagues who remember The Speaker as an ugly chapter in ALA’s past. Yet they are not the only constituency to be considered. LHRT passionately believes that each generation has the right–and the obligation–to learn about such events and make sense of them on their own. Those who were children or even unborn in 1977 deserve the opportunity to see and learn about The Speaker, and use it to strengthen their professional philosophy and practice.

In co-sponsoring a panel discussion about The Speaker, LHRT does not seek to garner attendees through “sensationalism,” “stir up unnecessary controversy,” or “reopen old wounds” as has been charged. Our membership includes retirees and several former presidents of ALA who may have painful memories of those days. We care fervently about inclusiveness. During the planning stage, we requested that OIF invite former LHRT chair Mark McCallon, who has undertaken rigorous scholarly research on the topic, to join the panel in hopes that he would introduce the audience to the disputes surrounding the film. The involvement of the Black Caucus heartens us as well. We are confident that the OIF has assembled a panel that will raise awareness of at least some of The Speaker’s complexities. We hope that attendees will bring questions to the event and share their personal reflections. We shall continue to support ALA’s efforts to offer programs that critically examine the profession’s history.

This past week, a historic court decision in Pennsylvania reminded us that simply because an activity “causes discomfort in some does not make its prohibition constitutional.”[1] In a similar vein, LHRT believes that The Speaker and other artifacts of ALA’s history, however agonizing, deserve to be known and discussed.

Bernadette A. Lear

LHRT Chair, 2013-2014



Endorsed unanimously by the Library History Round Table Executive Committee:

Dominique Daniel, Vice-Chair/Chair-Elect

Ellen Pozzi, Secretary-Treasurer

Julia Skinner, Member-at-Large

Cindy Welch, Member-at-Large

Mark McCallon, Past-Chair

Eric Novotny, Incoming Vice-Chair/Chair-Elect

Nancy Dupree, Incoming Secretary-Treasurer-Elect

Suzanne Stauffer, Incoming Member-at-Large

[1] Hon. John E. Jones, U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, Whitewood v. Wolf, Memorandum Opinion, May 20, 2014, pg. 38. See http://www.aclupa.org/files/8714/0061/1059/WHITEWOOD_OPINION.pdf.


  • Since my comments are frequently quoted in this piece I am adding a comment.

    First, I never mentioned or even thought about LHRT when making my comments.

    Second, the issues discussed by IFC and ALA Council really centered around whether or not to have ALA’s name on the poorly written a produced film.

    Third, please go to my comments at http://www.oif.ala.org/oif?p=4985 for more reading materials.

  • Oh, and fourth, it is true that SRRT members have spoken about this program but they have spoken as individuals and not as SRRT members. I happen to belong to SRRT, IFRT, PLA, GLBTRT, COSWL, and ALA Council and I am not speaking for any of those groups.

    SRRT Action Council has not met on this subject and has not taken a position. They may decided to do that in the future but I am sure the LHRT would want to be historically correct and acknowledge that such action has not yet occurred.

  • Deirdre, I’m not sure I get the point of the comments you just made above. Are you saying that LHRT shouldn’t have written a statement, just because you weren’t thinking of us when you criticized OIF’s program on The Speaker? If so, I would say that LHRT has every right to respond to criticisms of a program which we we’ve involved. In fact, we were *asked* to respond by ALA’s program office. Also, I don’t see how LHRT’s statement was incorrect, as you seem to imply in your comment about being “historically correct.” The statement does not say that *SRRT* (as an organization) criticized the program, but that *members* of SRRT (i.e., individuals including you) did. Furthermore, the bibliographic references you provide in another post seem to address the reasons why some librarians of the 1970s (rightfully) feel uncomfortable with this program, but don’t really address what OIF, the Black Caucus, and LHRT are trying to do with The Speaker today. Feel free to enlighten us …

  • I am certainly not saying anything one way or the other about whether or not you can or should make a statement. I would never want to stop anyone or any group from speaking or presenting an opinion. I am not sure how what I said gave you that impression.

    I agree that you did say that SRRT members have commented about the program and not that SRRT did. What I am saying is that it is interesting that you pulled out that some of us are SRRT members and it can, but maybe doesn’t, give the impression that we are speaking because we are SRRT members or because of a position SRRT has taken. I just wanted it to be clear that I am speaking for myself and not for any group. Others may not care one way or the other and I am not speaking for them. Why did you pull out that we are SRRT members and not members of IFRT, members of PLA, members of GLBTRT, members of COSWL, etc.? To me it would have been more correct to just say “some individuals” or “some ALA members” and left it at that. Just thought it was curious and might lead to some incorrect assumptions. But it really doesn’t matter in the long run.

    You are correct, the bibliographic references are to the history of “The Speaker.” I just thought they might be of interest.

  • Let me add that two past -Presidents ( myself and Mitch Freedman) who were “there” have also registered dismay about the current program as described, and Betty Turock is preparing comments. All three of us bear the bruises of that 1977 debate.

    We have suggested that you add John Berry, then Editor in Chief of Library Journal to your panel. He reported on the controversy extensively at the time, and his reporting often had quite a different “take” than American Libraries.

    This controversy was a very nuanced one, but it is often characterized as simply a racism vs censorship debate. Currently the panel has two people who were “there, ” but neither took a position against putting ALAs name on the film.

    What many of us who voted against ALA distributing the Speaker objected to was the poor manner in which the
    “the subject matter” was treated –for example, the racist stereotyping of the characters, and the false dichotomy of the film ( if you are upset by racist comments you must be for censorship). No one suggested destroying the film. Personally, I opposed giving it ALA’s imprint, not because it dealt with inviting a racist speaker, but because of the WAY it dealt with the reactions. Many others were also appalled, including the President and the President-elect at the time (Eric Moon and Clara Jones) as well as future President and founder of the ALA Black Caucus EJ Josey. Clara, by the way, was the first African American to direct a major public library ( Detroit) and the first to become President of AL A. A vote against ALA putting its imprimatur on the the film was not a vote for suppressing or destroying it. Our votes were no more for “censorship,” than American Libraries rejecting an article, or ALA Publishing deciding to reject a book that did not meet its standards. The Speaker was poorly conceived and poorly executed. We did not want it to be the representation of our Associations view of intellectual freedom to the world. The marketplace obviously agreed — only a few hundred copies were sold.

    My concern with the program as it stands now ( at least what is described in the publicity) is that this critical history and context will not be fully and accurately presented.

    Please consider adding John Berry to the panel.

  • “The Speaker Redux”

    I am, indeed, one of the ALA Past Presidents who remembers the first go round with “The Speaker” in 1977. A bit of context offers insight into the perspective from which I watched the film.

    Not long after I received my Rutgers master’s I began my first job in the Forsyth County Library System, Winston Salem, NC. There the myth of separate but equal was quickly replaced by the truth of separate and unequal. As the County’s East Area Head, I was responsible for the East Winston Branch, which until two years before I arrived, was the segregated library for African Americans only. No one wanted to use the branch–Caucasian residents knew it was an inferior substitute; African Americans wanted an end to segregation and an opportunity to know the best of libraries as well as the best of life. My job was to bring the library back in touch with its community. I began that job knowing little to nothing about segregated libraries and little to nothing about the racism that made them possible. To learn about both, I turned to my East Winston Advisory Council composed of the Harambees, local business owners, and members of the NAACP and the Black Panthers.

    Then as now, our profession had articulated principles. Chief among them were intellectual freedom, equity, intellectual property rights, and privacy, which are known, valued, and accepted by the informed public. For me, dedication to intellectual freedom, social responsibility and equity reside side-by as fundamental values of our profession. They are not mutually exclusive. There is no contest among them. They are supportive concepts that form widely shared core beliefs to guide our professional actions.

    It was therefore a shock to me when I viewed the “The Speaker,” and witnessed the naïve understanding of the subtle and not so subtle racism that it portrayed. After all, ours is an Association whose members had suffered segregation–an Association that held segregated conferences in segregated locations over a significant period of time.

    I saw as my goal participating in the Speaker debates helping Association members understand what ALA had produced. I was often tarred with the same brush as many of my colleagues, that is, I was deemed a censor. Yet I could not support a film that implied I must accept racism in order to honor my commitment to intellectual freedom.

    I disagree with the premise that “The Speaker” presents a debate over the limits of free speech. At no time did I ask to have the film removed from available ALA products. I wanted it understood, not censored or banished. That the publicity for the presentation at the 2014 Annual conference of ‘The Speaker…. A Film About Freedom,” states “the debate over the limits of free speech have always been incendiary” causes me to doubt that any new directions will come of the 2014 discussion. This program seems set up to return to the divisiveness that pervaded its original introduction.

    Four decades later, times have changed radically. Yet, on the cusp of the 21st century, we have returned to “The Speaker,” a film that failed to meet its objectives the first time around. We are no longer a nation of majorities and minorities. We are a nation of Emerging Majorities with all that means for dealing with the challenges before us. We face issues of intellectual freedom as well as equity that include net neutrality, broadband adequacy, equal access to digital content, education for librarianship, and the continuing use of the E-Rate to force compliance with the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) requiring schools and libraries that receive universal service fund discounts to purchase and use a technology protection measure on every computer to block or filter content deemed obscene or harmful to minors.

    Let’s face today’s challenges. I stand by what I said in 1977. “The Speaker” is a badly flawed racist film, which diminishes ALA’s defense of intellectual freedom. If it serves any purpose at all, it is as a reminder that ALA needs to be aware of and not repeat the mistakes of its inglorious past.

    Betty J. Turock

  • As a past member of the ALA IFC and a current student of history, this conversation interests me on many levels.

    When the film was made–in 1977–it was a contemporary statement by the association. Taken in the context of the times, it seems to have attempted making a point about the importance of protecting offensive forms of speech. Its message is apparently consistent with the ACLU’s ongoing (and equally controversial) defense of the KKK’s right to public expression.

    Now, it is an historical cultural artifact, more than 30 years old, created in another century, at a time when libraries controlled access to information.

    That is no longer the case. In fact, as Betty pointed out, it is now possible for someone to enter a library and access a computer that has a mechanism on it which, due to the flawed nature of such mechanisms, necessarily blocks access to protected speech. A 15-year-old with an iPhone in that same library has access to more unfettered information on her phone than does the 40-year-old homeless guy on the library computer.

    Is the purpose and mission of a library in 2014 different from that of the library in 1977? How do 30+ years of progress and setbacks in civil rights impact our interpretation of the film–what has changed, and what has not?

    It seems to me that these are worthy and important questions. I am grateful to you all for asking them.

  • To answer your question, Deirdre, I “pulled out” SRRT because in the e-mails that were forwarded to me (remember, LHRT does not have its own Councilor) the complainants — including yourself– all identified as SRRT members. I was forwarded 3 messages from SRRT members, and nothing from anyone who self-identified with another ALA unit. I had no way of knowing you were a member of COSWL, PLA, or any other group.

    But really, this bit isn’t the most important issue, is it? Moving on …

  • It is interesting that the LHRT response to objections to the revival of “The Speaker” states that “The intended purpose of The Speaker was to invite librarians to examine the limits of their own commitment to intellectual freedom. Such an exercise remains worthwhile.” The primary argument by those who object to the film, both in 1977 and now, is that the film presents a _bogus_ situation which has nothing to do with First Amendment rights. See the BCALA 1978 statement. Seems to me historians would take a more nuanced approach to this discussion.

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