By: James LaRue, Director, ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom
We first heard about challenges to the EBSCO database at the Cherry Creek (Colorado) School District in February of 2017. Today, the campaign has spread. Due to persistent pressure by a very small group of parents, the Cherry Creek School District ended its contract with EBSCO. The Utah Education Network has suspended the content to schools, and is inviting public comment. As of this week, EBSCO, and the Colorado Library Consortium, have been sued by the Thomas More Society, a national non-profit law firm “dedicated to restoring respect in law for life, family, and religious liberty.”
The lawsuit, and subsequent close examination, might be the best possible solution to the fact-challenged bullying of what has now become an anti-education smear campaign.
The claims, created and promulgated by two Colorado parents with the support of the former Morality in Media, now called the National Center On Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE), are fully as absurd as they were in the beginning. For instance, the complainants claim:
- EBSCO has content that is not just “pornographic” (a term that is never defined), but also “obscene” and “harmful to minors.”
- Schools and librarians were pushing this content, knowing it to be inappropriate for minors.
Let’s settle the big stuff right out of the gate. EBSCO is mostly a curated collection of mainstream magazines, journals, and newspaper articles. It doesn’t have obscene content. It just doesn’t. Nor is there a shred of evidence that students are using it the way these parents are (to deliberately look for titillating content). In fact, there is considerable evidence (based on aggregated search analytics) that students use EBSCO just the way you’d hope: to do their homework, to study up on educational topics.
And let’s be totally clear about this, too: If middle or high school students are looking for sex on the internet, they do not start with library databases.
While the package of periodicals may vary by intended audience, and does allow some further curation by librarians, we really are talking about the magazines you find in the grocery store or corner newsstand. The people behind the complaints have a very clear agenda. They don’t think sexual content of any kind is ever appropriate, not for school children (sex education articles), not for military personnel (NCOSE opposes strip clubs and men’s magazines on or near bases), not even for adult consumers (NCOSE leaders tried to pressure stores not to carry the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue).
The problem here isn’t pornography in library databases. The problem is a group of people who believe their prudery should be public policy.
The tactics are very transparent.
- First, “parents” do complex, multi-step searches, using terms and strategies rarely practiced by students, to get to content that references human sexuality. The offending article might be, and often is, something in Time magazine, or a men’s or women’s health magazine. It might be a Cosmopolitan article about the female orgasm. It might be a small ad in the back of a magazine for sex toys. It might be an article on birth control. It might be a link, in a research article about the effects of pornography, to external sites. It might be a description of a novel (but not its content). EBSCO, and libraries, sample the content of our culture. Sometimes, people talk about sex.
- The parents present these results as self-evident proof of a problem. The stunned media, accepting the claims at face value, amplify the message, in essence giving NCOSE the coverage it was seeking.
- At first mostly via Facebook attacks, but now at school boards or public library board meetings, the parents demand the immediate suspension of these databases.
The amazing thing is that their tactics seem to be working. In today’s climate, there is such fear of controversy among administrators that they simply won’t face even the possibility of public belief that they are not “protecting” children from sexual information. At present, an estimated 130+ schools have quietly removed the resource. It may be higher.
In short, this is a staggeringly successful censorship effort directed against the public sector. Just a handful of parents, armed with the utterly spurious research and outrageous accusations by a national faith-based pressure group, accomplishes something that does present a threat to our children: It deprives them of a current tool for research that guides them to curated materials from authoritative sources evaluated by educators and subject matter experts.
Since 2010, America has lost over 20% of its school librarians. In many elementary, middle, and high schools, library budgets, never very robust, have been slashed to the bone. For those schools, shared databases like EBSCO (or ProQuest, or Gale products, which have also been targeted) represent pretty much the only bona fide tools for school research that remain. In a time of allegations of “fake news,” of willfully deceptive articles on all topics, one might think it worthwhile to invest in the critical thinking skills of students.
The Pornography is Not Education folks, to protect children from internet sex, are leaving students with the only other option: Google and their smartphones. Students will be left, literally, to their own devices. How, one wonders, will this advance NCOSE’s goals?
The parents’ rallying cry — in the latest lawsuit against the Colorado Library Consortium and EBSCO itself — is that “Pornography is not education.” What they don’t seem to understand is that education is not pornography, either.
For more on the EBSCO controversy, see False Witness: Morality in Media and EBSCO, published in the Journal of Intellectual Freedom and Privacy, and Anyone Can Sue: Legal Intimidation as a Censorship Tool and Responding to Database Challenges, published here on the OIF blog.
James LaRue is the Director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom, and the Executive Director of the Freedom to Read Foundation. Author of The New Inquisition: Understanding and Managing Intellectual Freedom Challenges, he has given countless keynotes, webinars, and workshops on intellectual freedom, advocacy, building community engagement, and other topics. Prior to his work for OIF, Jamie was a public library director for many years in Douglas County, Colorado. Find him on Twitter @jaslar.