By: James LaRue, director of OIF
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?