One might think of the covert, sometimes illegal FBI surveillance of the Black Panthers, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and various other political dissidents as the petri dish where experiments with overreach were conducted years before they were unleashed on the general public. It is only within past decade or so that we are learning just how extensive the surveillance was through the Freedom of Information Act. It is only now that people like artist Sadie Barnette are beginning to come to terms with what it means.
Although Governor Andrew Cuomo ordered the regulation rescinded, a recent proposal and pilot program by New York to severely limit prisoners’ access to reading material raises serious question about prisoners’ right to read.
An exhibit of artwork by current and former Guantanamo Bay detainees was recently on display at John Jay College. Because of the unique circumstances of the artists and their artwork, this show caught the attention of the Pentagon, which issued—then retracted—a statement threatening the destruction of these pieces.
On January 10th, the New Jersey prisons reversed a ban on Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, after a letter from the New Jersey ACLU challenged the ban. With a little reflection, it isn’t hard to see the bitter irony of banning prisoners from reading a book like The New Jim Crow, a book that argues that mass incarceration targets African-Americans in order to keep them in an inferior position both socially and economically. These men and women are made “socially dead,” to borrow a phrase from famed sociologist Orlando Patterson.
In 2018 the U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to address two questions regarding compelled speech: whether requiring a cakeshop owner to create a cake for a same-sex wedding violates the First Amendment, and whether requiring pregnancy crisis centers to post information on abortions violates the First Amendment. The court’s decisions may have far reaching consequences for compelled speech.
As curators of collections, authorities on access, or just plain bookworms, we have an important role to play right now. If intellectual freedom is based on exploring, changing, improving through the discovery of new ideas then we have an opportunity, because of our particular skill set, to help shift the conversation.
We are working in institutions that rightly center both access and privacy, and we may, at some point, be called on to actually, personally defend one or both. Make sure you know the laws in your area, know your rights, and come up with some plans for how you would handle any tricky run ins like the ones above. We have an obligation not just to the profession, but to our patrons to make sure that their rights are infringed upon while in the library.
The attacks on the press are about lockouts, manipulation and threats. Lockouts are bad for the free flow of information. Manipulation is (and always has been) a two-way street … but threats? Threats now shape our public discourse, and again, to belabor the point over and over, this is not normal.
If we are truly standing for intellectual freedom, which includes the freedom to read, we must also extend our efforts to people in prison. While outrage on behalf of censorship in schools or public libraries is easier in many ways, if we ignore this issue in Texas prisons, we are absolutely neglecting the over 2 million Americans imprisoned nationwide.