Issues relating to intellectual freedom continue to dominate news stories, including debates on critical race theory, LGTBQ materials, academic freedom, and broadband access. In the past several months various state governments have passed bills targeting school curriculum. Fueled by misinterpretations of Critical Race Theory, this has led to numerous attempts to censor or ban books that discuss race. Books discussing gender and sexuality, mainly those with LGBTQ themes, have also been targeted such as when residents in Wyoming attempted to file criminal charges against library staff. Academic freedom of faculty on college campuses are also under fire, whether for curriculum concerns (related to aforementioned bills targeting Critical Race Theory) or for providing expertise outside their capacity as an educator. Broadband access continues to be an issue as many Americans continue to rely on the internet for work, education, or various other essential functions. Below are a few example cases currently unfolding related to these issues.
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Censorship of Black Authors
While Critical Race Theory (CRT) is a scholarly legal framework that states that racism has existed within many systems throughout the history of the United States, some lawmakers have misinterpreted this meaning. After Republican Texas state representative Matt Krause released a list of over 800 books to be censored, various authors pointed out that the books listed were not about critical race theory, but rather addressed racism, homophobia, and misogyny. Books targeted include Jerry Craft’s New Kid, which does not discuss critical race theory but rather tells the story of a boy experiencing racism in school. In October 2021, Craft wrote a note published in the Intellectual Freedom Blog in response to backlash against his book. Jonathon Friedman, the director of free expression and education at PEN America, expressed his concerns, stating “What is so alarming is that we would see books that maybe contain Black protagonists or written by LGBTQ authors be particularly subject to the extra scrutiny.” The vagueness of the anti-CRT legislation allows community members and government officials to sow confusion as to what does and doesn’t constitute problematic material, paving the way to further unjust book removals. ALA released a statement opposing these widespread efforts back in November.
“We stand opposed to censorship and any effort to coerce belief, suppress opinion, or punish those whose expression does not conform to what is deemed to be orthodox in history, politics, or belief. The unfettered exchange of ideas is essential to the preservation of a free and democratic society.”– American Library Association, 11/29/2021
Removal of LGBTQ Materials
LGBTQ-themed materials continue to be under fire, including an ongoing situation at the Ridgeland Public Library in Ridgeland, MS. Ridgeland is a city of approximately 24,000 people, located just north of Jackson, MS. On January 25, 2022, the Mississippi Freed Press reported that Ridgeland Mayor Gene McGee is withholding $110,000 of funding from the Madison County Library System, which the Ridgeland library is a part of, over the presence of LGBTQ+ books in the library collection. Tonja Johnson, executive director for the library system, explained that the library failed to receive the City of Ridgeland’s first 2022 quarterly payment. Johnson told the press that McGee stated that the library contained “homosexual materials,” which went against his religious beliefs. Bob Sanders, counsel for the library board, answered at a library board meeting that the mayor does not have any legal authority to override the contract with the library system. WLBT, Jackson’s local NBC-affiliate is also covering the story. In an interview with WLBT, Executive Director of Capital City Pride Jason McCarty explained that the library is a safe space for LGBTQ+ people and a place for people “can go to escape the world and dive into a great book and learn about new things.” The Madison County Library System released a statement on Freedom of Information, which can be read here.
Academic Freedom and the Right to Provide Expert Witness
In late 2021, The University of Florida barred three political science professors from providing testimony in a legal case. Professors Dan Smith, Michael McDonald, and Sharon Austin were scheduled to be brought in as paid experts for plaintiffs who were arguing a case to overturn a new state voting law. The university stated that allowing them to testify would be “adverse to the university’s interests as a state of Florida institution.” Smith, McDonald, and Austin sued the university, claiming their First Amendment rights were violated. In January 2022, a federal judge sided with the professors, stating that “Defendants, [the University of Florida,] must take no steps to enforce its conflict-of-interests policy with respect to faculty and staff requests to engage as expert witnesses or provide legal consulting in litigation involving the State of Florida until otherwise ordered.” David O’Neil, the lawyer for the professors, described how the ruling is a win for academic freedom, especially with regards to views that are not aligned with the ruling political party.
Homebuyers and Broadband Access
For several years, some American renters and homebuyers have experienced the struggle of moving into a new home they thought would be served by an internet service provider (ISP), but was not. For example, when a couple bought a new house in Virginia, they were told by Comcast that their home would be covered. After they closed on the house, Comcast revealed that they were in a dead zone, but they could pay $5,000 to have coverage extended to their home. A similar incident occured in 2015, when a man received assurances from local cable companies that there would be internet plans available at a new house he was constructing. After the house was built, one of the companies said they would only offer service after paying $117,000 to cover network extension costs. In both instances the cable companies claimed it was a “mistake,” but whether or not that is true, the state of Washington now has a new law protecting potential homebuyers. Home sellers are now required to share their ISP information on signed disclosure forms, although they do not have to provide information on access speeds, quality, or alternate providers. Overall this is a step in the right direction, especially at a time when many rely on home internet activity for work, education, and much more.
David Sye is a Research and Instruction Librarian at Murray State University in southwestern Kentucky. He is liaison for the History, Political Science & Sociology, and Psychology departments, as well as teaching instruction sessions and credit-bearing courses on information literacy. He holds a BA in History from the University of Illinois at Springfield, in addition to an MA in History and MLIS from Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. Prior to working at Murray State University, he has worked in public libraries and briefly taught middle school social studies.