Libraries, Litigation and Legislation

Censorship, Legislation

By: Ross Sempek

Despite all of their wholesome connotations, libraries are no stranger to controversy. In this year alone, the Colorado Library Consortium was sued over alleged pornographic content in its EBSCO educational databases. And the states of Maine, Montana, and Florida have pursued obscenity law amendments which aimed to strip educators of exemptions from punitive consequences for perceived obscenity in instructional materials. If it had not died in committee, Florida House Bill 855, would have taken effect July 1st. It carried with it a felony charge for anyone who violated the law, including teachers, volunteers, and librarians. So I felt it an appropriate time to reflect on the state of libraries in relation to the communities who fight against their principles.

Indeed, indiscriminate access to information, and supporting underrepresented communities, are values that some have difficulty understanding. But we must continue to provide context for this information which unequivocally changes once filtered through the lens of education – elementary or otherwise. To me, appealing to prurient interests appears to be the catalyst for polarizing opinions on this matter. Some of the controversial images can be seen here, at the website for Pornography Is Not Education – those who sued the CLiC. Even if these images aren’t apocryphal, I know that they don’t appeal to prurient interests. This is an opportunity to discuss these concepts with students and their parents. But what mostly ensues is a reactive and staunch attitude against what immediately presents itself as something illegal: promoting obscene materials to minors.   

This, among other reasons, is why librarians and educators face formidable judgement from the court of public opinion. They do this all while making a good-faith effort to do their jobs. But this is why we’re here, I suppose; the principles that underlay intellectual freedom will always have its detractors. And so it needs supporters. But in order to make progress, supporters may need to reframe a conception of what has been a contentious history between librarians and censors.

Obscenity is clearly still a thorny issue and this ebb and flow between obscenity and censors has been going on for decades. In 1976: a win for free speech. The US Supreme Court compelled the state of Colorado to replace the vague language in its obscenity statutes with something more concrete. However in 1994 the group, Coalition Helping to Insure Lives for Dignity pushed for legislation that would have made it easier for local governments to outlaw what they deemed obscene materials.

Oregon has experienced similar tides. The limits of free speech in Oregon were cemented by a 1987 Oregon Supreme Court ruling in the State v. Henry case. At the time, the ACLU argued that Oregon’s free-speech laws were much more inclusive than those at the federal level, and as a result, established that material deemed obscene using the “Miller Test” was actually protected under Oregon’s freedom of speech parameters. As the “first state in the nation to abolish the offense of obscenity,” But like those objections occurring today, this precedent was met with protests. This section of the constitution was challenged in 1994, and 1996. Both lost, and the language hasn’t been challenged since.

The obscenity-fueled zeitgeist has only resurfaced in recent memory, but as one can see this conflict has defined our societal boundary for scores of years. At this point we might consider halting this cycle of contention and taking a different approach.

I recognize that for those in tune with the values of librarianship and education, this whole conflict may seem bewildering…absurd even. However one might also consider that, given a reasonable incredulity, those who enable such bills are those most in need of contextualizing instructional information. We’re not insidious smut-peddlers – we know this. But some don’t, and while it may seem counter-intuitive to reach-out to litigious detractors, communication is the only way to foster harmony. To act in the spirit of the drag queen story-hour panel discussion held in Spokane, Washington might do just that, and maybe we can reach a mutual understanding. Perhaps even support for intellectual freedom. A brick in the roadblock to making progress with censors perhaps exists within the conception of our relationship as a partition. Coming together like they did in Washington was a heartening step toward this sort of rapport. It practically illustrated how the tenets of intellectual freedom benefit everyone. It showed that you don’t have to like library programming, but it doesn’t mean we can’t meet as peers and discuss our values. Polarizing views can coexist without escalation, just like they do in our libraries.


Ross Sempek

Ross Sempek is a recent MLIS graduate and a Library Assistant at the Happy Valley Public Library just outside of Portland, Oregon. He comes from a blue-collar family that values art, literature, and an even consideration for all world-views. This informs his passion for intellectual freedom, which he considers to be the bedrock for blooming to one’s fullest potential. It defines this country’s unique freedoms and allows an unfettered fulfillment of one’s purpose in life. When he is not actively championing librarianship, he loves lounging with his cat, cycling, and doing crossword puzzles – He’s even written a handful of puzzles himself.

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