Hearing from Deborah Caldwell-Stone, New Director of the ALA Office of Intellectual Freedom and Executive Director of Freedom to Read Foundation

First Amendment, Freedom to Read Foundation, Office for Intellectual Freedom

By: Rebecca Hill

As a former litigator and appellate litigator, Deborah Caldwell-Stone is a woman that you want defending libraries and their role in a democracy.  A staunch supporter of intellectual freedom, Caldwell-Stone has been serving as the Interim Director for the ALA Office of Intellectual Freedom since 2018.  In October, she was appointed as director for the office and as executive director of the Freedom to Read Foundation. I spoke with Caldwell-Stone about what we can expect to see in her new role. 

RH: Tell me about your new position and what goals you have for each position?

Deborah Caldwell-Stone
Deborah Caldwell-Stone

DCS: As the director of the OIF, I want to continue and promote Banned Books Week and want to expand its reach.  Of course, our challenge support and challenge reporting will remain core to the office’s mission. I want to work on expanding continuing education opportunities for librarians and library workers.  I want to ensure that our advocacy is meeting the needs of the profession and ALA members.  

With the Freedom to Read Foundation, we are hoping to expand the programming and educational opportunities for the Foundation, especially for library students.  We want to do all we can to defend First Amendment rights, even working on those issues that could impact access to information and user rights not directly related to libraries.  I am looking forward to the challenge of carrying out the mission of both OIF and FTRF and making sure that those services are available for many years to come.  

RH:  You have written frequently on privacy issues.  What do you think are the most critical issues on privacy today?

DCS: I believe that libraries face a multitude of privacy issues. I still hear from libraries that are facing challenges regarding law enforcement access to library records and data.  But the greater problem these days is a vendor’s access to library user data. So many vendors are now managing and holding library users’ data, either as the operator of the ILS or as a platform providing access to resources.  We have fallen behind in addressing this issue, whether it is protecting user data through the law, or through guidelines or best practices that come out of ALA’s Intellectual Freedom Committee and Privacy Subcommittee. We want to ensure that library users’ privacy and personal data is protected and not being used or bartered in the market and to make sure that libraries are developing protocols to ensure that they’re doing all they can to avoid data breaches and protect the privacy of library users.  

RH:  In terms of data privacy, what are your thoughts on the renewal of Section 215 of the Patriot Act, scheduled to sunset on December 15, 2019.  Do you have any concerns with this potential permanent renewal of this part of the Patriot Act?

DCS:  I remain concerned with the provision of the Patriot Act that would allow a secret court to issue a secret warrant to the FBI for library user records, where there is no transparency about the warrant’s target, why the warrant was issued, or the basis for the FBI’s investigation, and that provides a means for the FBI to avoid the use of due process usually required under the Fourth Amendment.

This is the core issue: Section 215 of the Patriot Act, the business record provision, is the section of the PATRIOT Act that is proposed for permanent renewal.  In 2000, the year before the passage of the PATRIOT Act, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act only allowed federal agents to obtain certain car rental and travel records under secret warrants. But under Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act, the FBI can obtain any “tangible thing” or business record with a secret warrant, and library records are considered business records. We believe that this enormously problematic.  We have not revised our position on that. My understanding is that there has been an extension of the PATRIOT Act until March 15, 2020. It is worth talking about, and we will have the chance to consider how to approach this issue at ALA Midwinter.  In regards to other provisions of the PATRIOT Act, it looks like the NSA no longer has the appetite to continue the bulk collection of phone calls disclosed by Edward Snowden. 

RH:  What do you believe are the biggest intellectual freedom issues that libraries face today?

DCS:  I think that one of the biggest issues is the ongoing effort to silence LGBTQ voices in the library and in the classroom.  Not only are we seeing an increased number of challenges to materials that feature LGBTQ characters or contain LGBTQ themes, but we are also witnessing organized efforts to remove these books from libraries and schools.  One example is the Loudoun County situation, where an organized group is challenging classroom libraries featuring diverse materials. It is enormously problematic. 

The second intellectual freedom issue I’m concerned about are the organized efforts to change laws and policies in order to make it easier to censor library materials, whether it is for sexual themes, profanity, or because the book addresses LGBTQ themes.  We are seeing efforts in multiple states where groups are trying to change the law or alter the composition of school and library boards to achieve that goal.  

RH:  When you talk about organized efforts, what issues, and who make up these organized efforts?

DCS:  These campaigns tend to be organized by conservative Christian advocacy groups or groups who have an alliance with those groups. One example is the Florida Citizens Alliance, the group that sought the change in Florida state law making it possible to prosecute school librarians for sharing any book with sexual themes in it with minors. They supported an proposed amendment to the law that would have defined child pornography as any text depicting a sexual relationship between minors, which would essentially encompass Romeo and Juliet and any YA novel.  Florida Citizens Alliance grew out of campaigns to change local school curricula organized by conservative Christian groups and Tea Party Republicans. They have allied to change school curricula to reflect their political, social, and religious views, and they have been successful in their attempt to define materials that they find objectionable as outside the pale. Initially, they started in one county in Florida but are now active statewide. 

Another example is the group organized by parents in Colorado who claimed to find pornography in the EBSCO’s research databases. They organized successfully with like-minded groups in Utah and other states.  Fortunately, their efforts to censor databases in Utah failed due to advocacy by Utah librarians and educators, and the Colorado library consortium has been very successful in preventing the wholesale loss of EBSCO in that state. The fact that the state library associations had to grapple with these issues demonstrates how these groups can be very effective in organizing themselves to mount a library challenge. 

RH:  Do you feel that librarians are prepared to manage these issues? 

DCS:  I believe that everyone who works in the library who may talk to the media or with members of the community should have training in how to deal with the media and training in crisis communications and advocacy.  Having these skills will serve the library and the library worker in many circumstances, and not just with challenges. Being aware of what kind of intellectual freedom challenges exist and knowing the key talking points and messaging necessary to respond to these challenges should be part of every librarian’s toolbox. 

At the upcoming ALA Midwinter Conference, Theresa Chmara, general counsel for Freedom to Read Foundation, will be doing a workshop to inform librarians about some of these issues from a legal perspective, including First Amendment Audits and public libraries’ responsibilities when they use social media. 

RH:  Are librarians starting to see that the First Amendment is under threat?

DCS:  I believe that the First Amendment is always under threat from different quarters at different times in history. I do see an effort to weaponize the First Amendment in ways that deny people rights.  For instance, the argument that specific religious organizations can be free to discriminate against LGBTQ people in the provision of public service on the grounds of religious freedom, or the effort to put a thumb on the scale in favor of conservative viewpoints via bills introduced and passed by the state legislature to manage and regulate speech in public university campuses. They want to create a platform for conservative speakers by regulating the free expression of others. Some of the proposed laws have gone so far as to mandate expulsion for students who protest against speakers on campus.  

RH:  Do you think that librarians see the constant threat of disinformation and a movement towards a post-truth society as a threat to libraries?

DCS:  ALA is engaged in ongoing efforts to promote libraries as essential civic institutions, whether it is through Libraries Transform or the civic engagement member interest group or simply by promoting open access to diverse sources of information. It is important for library workers, administrators, and trustees to understand the role of the library in providing curated information and facilitating and protecting the ability of individuals to access a wide range of diverse information resources, and our office supports this work.  I believe that libraries are little engines of democracy. They are the place that anyone can go and educate themselves. The phrase I’ve come to use and appreciate is that a library is a place for individuals to come and discover, develop, and defend their personal views on belief, politics, and society. I believe this is an essential role for libraries that supports a functional democracy. 

RH:  How often have you had reports of Freedom Audits in libraries, and what has typically been a library’s response to these visits?

DCS:  We have heard from librarians who want to know what to do if someone is filming in the library, or saying, “there is someone in the library recording and say that they have a First Amendment right to do this, is that correct?”  Sometimes we hear from librarians who tell us that they allowed someone to come into the library to film, and now, they are bothering people and making demands on staff and users. 

What librarians want to avoid is the chilling effect that can occur when these audits result in the surveillance of patrons.  You don’t want to create a situation where people are afraid to go to the library for personal information because they think that they will be observed, or someone will report on them.  We must remember that just because the building is a public space, that doesn’t make it a public forum. For example, you can’t walk onto a military base and do what you want. You can’t protest, you can’t demand access. You can’t film it. It’s a public property that is owned by the government, but if you apply the theory that is advanced by First Amendment auditors, that is, that they can walk in and film anything they want to because it’s a government-owned property, then they are simply not reflecting the law as it stands.  

The library falls into the category of public spaces that were created for a purpose — the ability to access and receive information — and that is the right the courts have protected. Courts defend the right to physically access the library and use its resources. You have a First Amendment right to enter a library and use its resources. But the law also recognizes that a library is not a public square and that it can regulate behaviors that interfere with the mission of the library and the ability of library users to use the library.  That is where the phrase “designated public forum” or “limited public forum” comes from. It is not a public forum like a public square.  

RH:  Does the ALA OIF aim to be more aggressive on advocacy on all these issues? 

DCS:  Our goal is to make sure that our advocacy meets our needs of the library user or the library worker who is attempting to preserve the right to read and the right to privacy.  We have received criticism when some believe we have not been aggressive enough. But in those cases, we had been working with those who approached us for help in the community, and the library leadership at the local and state level, and tailored our advocacy to meet the needs of the community and those working to remedy the concern. Every situation calls for different strategies and tactics as well as different forms of advocacy.


Rebecca Hill

Rebecca Hill is a freelance writer who writes on libraries, literacy, science education and other topics for a variety of online and national magazines. Currently she writes a science education column for VOYA magazine.  She holds a MLS from Indiana University Purdue University and JD from Valparaiso University. Her interest in intellectual freedom has been peaked by the increase in technology via artificial intelligence and social media. Currently she serves on the Indiana Library Federation Board of Directors and the Purdue University Libraries Dean’s Council. She is also on the Library Board of Trustees for her local library. A long time advocate of libraries, reading, writing and all things words are her passion.

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