We Always Have Choice

Academic Freedom, Censorship, Intellectual Freedom Committee

by Dustin Fife

Earlier this month, Slate published a disconcerting article titled: “ISIS Gives Us No Choice but to Consider Limits on Speech.” It was written by eminent legal scholar Eric Posner, a Yale and Harvard educated academic, who is currently employed by the University of Chicago Law School. Posner’s is an old and insinuative argument. In order to stop an enemy, you must stop people from being curious about that enemy. You must protect citizens from the dangers of propaganda and recruitment by criminalizing information. Now I’m no friend to Daesh (ISIS) and I bore easily of slippery slope arguments, but this is a SLIPPERY SLOPE!

Posner uses a recent news story to show how naive people must be protected from organizations like Daesh.

But there is something we can do to protect people like Amin from being infected by the ISIS virus by propagandists, many of whom are anonymous and most of whom live in foreign countries. Consider a law that makes it a crime to access websites that glorify, express support for, or provide encouragement for ISIS or support recruitment by ISIS; to distribute links to those websites or videos, images, or text taken from those websites; or to encourage people to access such websites by supplying them with links or instructions. Such a law would be directed at people like Amin: naïve people, rather than sophisticated terrorists, who are initially driven by curiosity to research ISIS on the Web.

Think about this sentence: “Consider a law that makes it a crime to access websites that glorify, express support for, or provide encouragement for ISIS or support recruitment by ISIS.” Can we all not imagine how this would be abused by over-eager officials? Can we not see how this will stop people from openly discussing issues? Posner does write that there will need to be exemptions for legitimate research and law enforcement, but the whole purpose of intellectual freedom is to create an environment safe from having to legitimize curiosities. Where does this end? What other curiosities will eventually be criminalized?

Posner recognizes that this tactic has not worked in the past, that it has led to harassment and harmed civil liberties. His remedy is that we should be more careful this time. “During World War I, for example, the government punished dissenters who merely criticized the war and were not spreading German propaganda or trying to recruit agents…we should be careful to avoid overreacting again.” Posner is correct, we should be careful not to overreact again, but the type of law he is recommending would be a severe overreaction.

David Lankes wrote that we must all “challenge the false narrative that security must come at the expense of freedom and rights.” As librarians we must openly challenge narratives that will be used to abridge freedoms. Freedoms and liberties are what make us FREE (it is right there in the words), and slippery slopes drag us to the bottom–whether that is where we intended to go or not.


Dustin Fife is the Outreach and Patron Services Librarian at Utah Valley University Library. Prior to coming to UVU Library, Dustin spent six years as a public library director for San Juan County, Utah. Dustin is currently the President of the Utah Library Association. He can be reached at dustin.fife@uvu.edu.

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